Veteran Single Parents: Surviving but Not Thriving

by Sierra Smucker, Teague Ruder, Stacey Yi, Coreen Farris

This Article

RAND Health Quarterly, 2024; 11(3):9

Abstract

The demographics of the veteran population are changing. Veterans who served after September 11, 2001 (post-9/11 veterans), are more likely to be female and identify as a person of color than their older counterparts. They are also more likely to be raising children, many of them without support from a partner. This study provides a comprehensive look at the financial, physical, and mental health of veteran single parents; explores the differences across these factors by race, ethnicity, and gender; and includes recommendations on policies and programs that can better support veteran single parents and their children.

For more information, see RAND RR-A1363-6 at https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA1363-6.html

Full Text

The changing demographics of the military demand that policymakers pay greater attention to veteran parents, particularly mothers. Women represent the fastest-growing population in the veteran community (Holder, 2010). Currently, women make up about 10 percent of the overall veteran population, and that percentage is expected to increase by 50 percent by 2035 (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2017). Despite these statistics, few studies have focused on the impact of veteran status, gender, and parenthood on well-being outcomes and access to care (e.g., U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2017). This study expands our knowledge of the current experience of veteran single parents in the United States by answering the following research questions:

  1. What are the demographic characteristics of veterans who served after September 11, 2001 (post-9/11 veteran) single parents, and how do they compare with veteran coupled parents and nonveteran single parents?
  2. How do veteran single parents compare with nonveteran single parents and veteran coupled parents in terms of financial stability?
  3. How do veteran single parents compare with nonveteran single parents and veteran parents in terms of mental and physical health and health care access?

Summary of Findings

Our analysis revealed that nearly 300,000 veteran parents identify as single. There were over 2.5 million veterans between the ages of 18 and 59 who identified as a parent of a child under 18 years of age between 2016 and 2020. Of those 2.5 million veterans, about 12 percent (294,677) identified as a single parent. For comparison, nearly 11 million nonveterans, or about 18 percent of nonveteran parents, identified as a single parent during the same span of time.

These veteran single parents are three times more likely than veteran coupled parents to identify as female and two times more likely than veteran coupled parents to identify as Black. Among veteran single parents, 42.8 percent identify as female, compared with only 13.9 percent of veteran coupled parents. Demographic data also show that 24.0 percent of veteran single parents identify as Black, compared with only 11.9 percent of veteran coupled parents.

Veteran single parents have a median personal income that is $18,000 less than that of veteran coupled parents. Median personal income of veteran single parents was $42,000, compared with that of veteran coupled parents ($60,000). In addition, median household income of veteran coupled parents was $102,000, which is significantly greater than that of veteran single parents ($58,580). Veteran single parents are also more likely than veteran coupled parents to experience food insecurity and less likely than veteran coupled parents to own a home.

Veteran single parents are more likely than veteran coupled parents to be enrolled in higher education. Just over 13 percent (13.1 percent) of veteran single parents reported being enrolled in higher education, compared with 10.7 percent of veteran coupled parents. In addition, veteran single parents were more likely than veteran coupled parents to be currently employed and enrolled in school (8.7 percent versus 7.9 percent, respectively).

Black female veteran single parents are more likely than veteran single parents of any other race and gender intersection to be enrolled in higher education. Female veteran single parents are more than twice as likely as their male counterparts to be enrolled in higher education (19.1 percent versus 8.6 percent, respectively). Analysis of race and gender intersections revealed that Black female veteran single parents are most likely to be enrolled in higher education (24.1 percent), followed by 20.1 percent of Hispanic female veteran single parents, 17.8 percent of Other Race female veteran single parents, and 15.2 percent of White female veteran single parents.

One example of a policy that should help close the gap between veteran coupled parents and veteran single parents, but does not always succeed, is the G.I. Bill. Veteran parents are using their G.I. Bill benefits. Indeed, a higher percentage of veteran single parents reported being enrolled in school than veteran coupled parents (13 percent versus 10 percent). Black and Hispanic veteran single mothers reported the highest rates of school enrollment (25 percent and 20 percent, respectively). Veteran single mothers are also more likely than veteran single fathers to be enrolled in school while simultaneously employed (13 percent versus 6 percent). However, qualitative interviews with veteran single parents pursuing higher education revealed significant barriers to using G.I. Bill benefits. Almost all interviewees discussed the difficulty of affording child care, working, and managing academic workload simultaneously. Specific aspects of the G.I. Bill were also burdensome for veteran single parents, particularly requirements to attend one class in-person to receive full housing benefits.

Recommendations

To reach parity with veteran coupled parents, veteran single parents need greater financial support when transitioning out of the military and into civilian jobs or education. Without support from another parent, veteran single parents likely have even greater demands on their time (full-time child-rearing) and resources (only one income) than veteran coupled parents. The fact that parents from ethnic and racial minority groups and woman veteran single parents face greater hardship than their White and male counterparts after leaving the military suggests that broader systemic inequalities in the United States also negatively affect veterans. Policies designed to support veteran single parents can improve equity in services, support, and outcomes for all veterans. Our recommendations are as follows:

  • Target transition services for veteran single parents as a unique group. Veteran single parents might need additional guidance on career paths that allow them to balance family and career, affordable child care options, and information about how to apply for benefits, such as SNAP and other financial resources, as they transition out of the service. Although women are more likely to be single mothers than men are to be single fathers, half of all veteran single parents are men, so these efforts should be gender-inclusive and welcoming to single fathers. Research on nonveteran parents suggest that single fathers and fathers, more generally, feel alienated from professional services (e.g., education, health care) when seeking support for their children (Coles, 2015). Our veteran interviewees expressed similar barriers to support.
  • Provide federal financial support for child care for veterans. Although there are many benefits offered to veterans who care for others (e.g., U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs [VA] Dependent Parent Program) or family members of veterans (e.g., surviving spouse and child benefits), a limited number of programs and policies support veterans who are parents. Interestingly, there is a program that helps VA employees who are parents that earn below a certain income threshold for child care (VA Child Care Subsidy Program) but no similar program that specifically helps veterans with young children. Nongovernmental organizations like the Foundation for Women Warriors attempt to support woman veterans who need child care but are unable to extend these services to all veterans who need them. The demand for services from the Foundation for Women Warriors underlines the need for greater access to such services provided, ideally, by the VA and federal government.
  • Provide support for single parents in higher education. We found that a relatively high percentage of the most financially insecure families headed by veteran singles were enrolled in higher education. These statistics suggest a commitment among veteran single parents to improve their future income levels and career trajectories to benefit themselves and their families. However, juggling school and being a full-time parent presents high barriers to completing education and fully using G.I. Bill benefits guaranteed to veterans. Key components of the G.I. Bill make completing a degree difficult for veteran single parents. By adjusting in-person requirements, waiving withdrawal penalties, and increasing the affordability of part-time degree participation, single parents could benefit from higher education as much as veteran coupled parents and veterans without children do (see Yi et al. [2024] for a deeper dive on this topic).
  • Provide mental health care for veteran single mothers. Veteran single mothers reported higher rates of poor mental health than their male counterparts. Our analysis of survey data cannot tell us why this might be. However, given the higher rates of financial insecurity among women (especially women from minority ethnic and racial backgrounds) in our study, higher rates of financial insecurity might be related to poorer mental health outcomes for women. Other research also finds that woman veterans are more likely to have experienced military sexual trauma, depression, anxiety, and other common mental health disorders, which could contribute to this difference (Adams et al., 2021). Ensuring that single mothers have access to mental health support could help not only mothers but also their children.
  • Encourage single fathers to seek out primary care. Veteran single fathers reported lower rates of health care seeking than did single mothers. These findings follow research that suggests single fathers are less likely to seek out health and behavioral health services for their children (Coles, 2015). Although our data cannot determine exactly why this is, it might be that fathers are less likely than mothers to engage in help seeking. Existing research finds that men are less likely to engage in help-seeking behaviors than women, especially for mental health concerns (Nam et al., 2010), and fathers also struggle to engage support resources (Ghaleiha et al., 2022). Ensuring that veteran single fathers are encouraged to access primary care could improve their long-term outcomes and ability to care for their children.

Future Research

This analysis raises many questions about the experience of veteran single parents. One central question is: What is driving differences in financial well-being and physical and mental health among veteran single parents, veteran coupled parents, and nonveteran parents? Although the present analysis provided some explanations based on existing research, our approach cannot determine whether such demographic characteristics as age and gender or military experience are driving differences among groups. Going forward, we hope to develop analyses that include the same or similar data but use more-advanced statistical analyses to isolate outcomes most associated with veteran and marital status.

Our intersectional analysis highlighted the importance of drilling down into subgroups to understand the unique issues facing veteran parents. We found significant reported food insecurity among mothers who identified as Other Race (Indian, Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian, Other Pacific Islander, or two or more races); over one-third reported that their children received free or reduced-price lunches in the past 30 days. We also found that Hispanic single mothers were struggling with mental health more than other groups and that Black single fathers were more likely to report issues accessing health care than other groups. Future research could continue to focus on these groups to identify their unique experiences and policies that would better meet their needs.

Finally, future research should unpack how different child custody or child support arrangements affect veteran single parents. It seems likely that certain custody arrangements and child support levels could influence the financial pressure faced by veteran single parents. Moreover, veterans might have unique child custody arrangements if they were single parents prior to or during their military career. Because about 5 percent of active-duty service members identify as a single parent, the experience of single parenthood in the military and as a veteran could involve compounding issues, especially if children were sent to live with another relative while the parent deployed (Military OneSource, undated). Future survey or qualitative work could better capture how child care arrangements mediate the outcomes documented in this study.

Limitations

Our analysis is limited in several ways. First, we did not adjust for demographic characteristics in our analysis. This means that the differences we saw between parents and veterans could be highly correlated with other factors that we did not account for. As we mentioned previously, we viewed this analysis as a first step toward understanding the unique circumstances that drive veteran single parents’ experiences and account for differences between their well-being and those of veteran coupled parents and nonveteran single parents.

Another limitation is our sample. Although the ACS and BRFSS provide one of the most representative samples of veterans, our analysis focused on averages from a broad period (2016–2021), which could mask more-subtle variation in results in specific years. For example, shutdowns related to the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic likely excaerbated child care challenges during the study period. We were also limited by information collected by the ACS and BRFSS. We did not know, for example, whether individuals receive or pay child support while raising children on their own. We also did not know whether children were born before the person became a veteran or after. Having children while in the military or before military service has unique impacts on children, especially children with single parents (e.g., when a parent deploys). Qualitative data could get closer to unpacking these relationships. We also did not compare how the age of the child mediated parent outcomes, which limited our ability to understand differences in outcomes across newer and more-established parents.

Finally, we captured only qualitative data from a narrow group of veterans: veteran single parents who are or were previously enrolled in higher education. As a result, the qualitative component has limited validity outside that narrow group. However, understanding barriers veteran single parents face when trying to use benefits associated with military service sheds light on reasons why veteran single parents do not use their higher education benefits. As many of our interviewees attested, they often relied on outside help from family or charity to get through their education while raising children on their own. We can infer that there are many veteran single parents who do not have access to such resources and, consequently, never enroll in school. Future research should engage in more qualitative data collection across a broader range of veteran single parents.

References

Adams, Richard E., Hu Yirui, Charles R. Figley, Thomas G. Urosevich, Stuart N. Hoffman, H. Lester Kirchner, Ryan J. Dugan, Joseph J. Boscarino, Carrie A. Withey, and Joseph A. Boscarino, "Risk and Protective Factors Associated with Mental Health Among Female Military Veterans: Results from the Veterans' Health Study," BioMed Central Women's Health, Vol. 21, No. 1, 2021.

Coles, Roberta L., "Single-Father Families: A Review of the Literature," Journal of Family Theory & Review, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2015.

Ghaleiha, Amin, Carrie Barber, Armon J. Tamatea, and Amy Bird, "Fathers' Help Seeking Behavior and Attitudes During Their Transition to Parenthood," Infant Mental Health Journal, Vol. 43, No. 5, 2022.

Military OneSource, webpage, 2021 Demographics Dashboards: Interactive Profile of the Military Community, undated. As of October 30, 2023:
https://demographics.militaryonesource.mil/

Nam, Suk Kyung, Hui Jung Chu, Mi Kyoung Lee, Ji Hee Lee, Kim Nuri, and Sang Min Lee, "A Meta-Analysis of Gender Differences in Attitudes Toward Seeking Professional Psychological Help," Journal of American College Health, Vol. 59, No. 2, 2010.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Women Veterans Report: The Past, Present, and Future of Women Veterans, February 2017.

Yi, Stacey, Sierra Smucker, Teague Ruder, and Coreen Farris, Meeting the Changing Needs of Veterans: Insights from Student Veterans Who Are Single Parents, RAND Corporation, RB-A1363-2, 2024. As of April 29, 2024:
https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RBA1363-2.html

Funding for this study was made possible by a generous gift from Daniel J. Epstein through the Epstein Family Foundation, which established the RAND Epstein Family Veterans Policy Research Institute within RAND Education and Labor.

RAND Health Quarterly is produced by the RAND Corporation. ISSN 2162-8254.