Today, roughly half of all military members have one or more children below school age. In many of those families, both parents work; the percentage of military spouses in the general labor market climbed from 30 percent in 1970 to over 60 percent in 1988. Many military spouses are themselves on active duty. In addition, the number of single parents in the military has steadily increased.

These demographic and behavioral changes have led to expanded availability of military child care. The Department of Defense (DoD) provides child care through installation-level Child Development Services (CDS) systems as an essential service to maintain readiness, increase productivity, and improve morale. Two settings predominate. The first is the child development center (CDC), which provides care for children on a fee-for-service basis. CDCs were designed to offer centralized day care at lower cost than is available in the private sector, and to provide care not offered by the private sector. The second type is family day care (FDC).[1] Here, military spouses trained as family day care providers are authorized to care for up to six children in the government quarters that they occupy. Fees are assessed by individual providers. Other arrangements such as before- and after-school programs and parent cooperatives, as well as resource and referral services, are also available on some installations.

Military child care has become a significant enterprise. Reports of Fiscal Year 1990 capacity made to the DoD by the services reveal that there are now 690 CDCs throughout the world offering care for children as young as six weeks through age 12 (Defense Manpower Data Center, 1991). These same data reveal the capacity for all CDCs and FDC homes was 129,030 children.[2]

Even with such growth, however, there remains substantial excess demand. DoD data indicate a waiting list of 59,858 names at the close of FY 1990, which is a source of considerable concern to the DoD. At the same time, recent incidents of child abuse in several CDCs have raised questions about the quality of military child care. The growing perception of a "day care crisis" in the military has also fueled Congressional concern. The Military Child Care Act (MCCA) of 1989 was Congress' response.

Military CDS systems are supported in part with appropriated funds, which cover center construction and renovation, some center operating costs, and oversight of family day care homes. Under the Military Child Care Act of 1989, FY 1990 appropriated funds must match parent fees.[3] Subsidies are authorized to FDC providers under the MCCA.

Decisions about child care operation and management are broadly interpreted at the installation level. Commanders have discretion over several key aspects of child care programs, including use of unfenced (discretionary) funds, the mix of services offered, expansion plans, and child eligibility criteria.

This study was designed to examine issues of quality and availability of child care for military families, as well as to address larger policy issues associated with the organization and delivery of child care services. Specifically, its objectives were to assess the extent to which existing child care programs meet the needs of military users in terms of accessibility, quality, readiness, morale, and affordability; to recommend alternative ways to allocate existing resources to more effectively meet both military and family objectives; to suggest new policies regarding the organization and structure of child care; and to consider the issue of excess demand for child care.


To address study objectives, three methods were employed:
  • Interviews with DoD policymakers and those responsible for child care policy and operations in each service
  • Observations and interviews on 16 military installations with people who administer and run programs and with parents
  • Secondary analyses of data from the RAND Arroyo Center Survey of Army Families.
Military installations were visited between April 1990 and January 1991. DoD and other policymakers were interviewed between August 1990 and January 1991.

Interview Findings

Child Care Goals

Child care is provided on military installations around the globe as a means of addressing important military and family goals. Because these goals are multiple and sometimes inconsistent, their effect on the provision of services is often uneven.

Most commonly, child care was described in the interviews as an important means of enhancing readiness by decreasing the conflict between parental responsibilities and mission requirements. Many respondents described child care as a quality of life or family support activity that allows spouses the opportunity to earn an income and contribute to the family's economic well-being.

Some respondents argued that child care serves retention goals as well. Despite the lack of a direct empirical link between child care availability and retention, a number of respondents believed the relationship was there. Others noted that a primary goal of child care is to foster better and more productive citizens.

The above goals apply equally to CDCs and FDCs, the two major components of the current CDS system. FDC has additional goals as well, which include management of excess demand and providing military spouses with opportunities to earn money while remaining at home.

Youth Activities (YA), which is not a formal part of CDS, increasingly provides child care to young children. The provision of child care is not entirely consistent with longstanding YA goals, which include strong sports and recreation programs.

Given the variety of views about military child care objectives, it is not surprising that objectives do not track with the provision of care. Indeed, we often found inconsistencies between stated goals and their operationalization.

Organizational Context

Military child care exists in a culture that in some ways is inimical to its goals. Whereas some commanders accept the importance of child care, others view it as a diversion from their primary purpose: supporting the defense of the nation.

Commander discretion is an important aspect of the military culture. The arguments for commander discretion are fundamental to the military endeavor: In the words of one general, "the Commander must have discretion to meet his mission."

Nevertheless, a number of respondents rued the fact that commander discretion dominated decisions about the ultimate use of funds for child care. Such respondents would like to see an end to the authority of commanders to take funds allocated for child care and use them for other purposes.

The tradition of and support for commander discretion collides with the substantial amount of regulation that governs the operation of military child care. Like civilian centers, CDCs must conform with sanitary, health, fire, and safety codes, most of which are more restrictive when young children are involved.

Frequent commander complaints of "micromanagement" were fueled by the passage in November 1989 of the Military Child Care Act (MCCA). The underlying purposes of the Act are threefold: to improve the quality of child care available, to expand the availability of care to more children, and to make access to child care more equitable.

Our installation visits coincided with the first implementation of the MCCA. For many of the people who administered child care programs on installations, the Military Child Care Act of 1989 was the major child care issue. And it was a critical one, as meeting the requirements of the Act required substantial changes in the ways that child development services were funded, organized, and delivered.

Respondents generally agreed that the Act was causing problems. Many of these problems stemmed directly from the failure of the Act to appropriate funds while specifying fairly rapid implementation of many of the Act's provisions.

In contrast to the considerable regulation of CDCs imposed by the MCCA, FDC was largely excluded from the MCCA legislation. This exclusion continued a pattern in which CDCs receive considerable oversight, whereas FDC receives little.[4]

Although Youth Activities provides child care to many young children, it elicits at best a minute proportion of the attention and concern lavished on CDS. And, as one Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) staffer delicately put it, it provides services to children under a set of regulations that are "more flexible" than those that govern CDS. In the YA programs that we visited, no minimum child-to-staff ratio was required, although in formal classes ratios of 15 children to 1 adult were the norm. The strict physical plant requirements imposed on CDCs were totally lacking.

The lack of clarity about the status and goals of child care is reflected in its varied organizational location across services and installations and in the considerable amount of discussion about where it belongs. Many respondents believe that significant advantages accrue to child care's association with MWR.

However, the MWR connection was criticized by many. Even those who were not particularly concerned that CDS was in MWR did express concern about its placement under Recreational Services in Air Force locations.

The greater emphasis on safety, staff training, and regulation in CDS has led some respondents to believe that the child care provided by YA should be integrated more closely into the CDS system. This would improve coordination between the programs, and standardize the delivery of child care.

Provision of Child Development Services

Turnover is a problem in all child care settings, because of low salaries, long hours, and few, if any, benefits. In military settings, turnover levels are often higher because most caregivers are spouses subject to frequent Permanent Change of Station (PCS) moves. The CDC directors whom we interviewed provided turnover estimates that rarely were below 40 percent, and often well exceeded this figure.

As a means of reducing staff turnover and increasing caregiver quality, the MCCA specified a series of pay raises. Preliminary DoD data show substantial impact of this change on employee turnover. Six-month turnover rates for CDS caregivers fell below 40 percent in every service, and were under 25 percent in the Army and Air Force (17.6 percent and 23 percent, respectively). These figures compare favorably with annual turnover rates of 61-300 percent prior to pay increases.

None of the pay increase provisions apply to FDC providers, who set their own fees. Their incentives and disincentives differ substantially from those of CDC caregivers. FDC providers to whom we spoke talked about a range of disincentives to participate in FDC. A number mentioned rigid training requirements that had to be fulfilled after hours. Long hours and difficulties arranging time off were described by one service child care manager as the major disincentives to FDC recruitment.

On some of the installations that we visited, child development staff have attempted to increase FDC incentives through the provision of equipment loans and toy lending services. There was a marked absence of discussion of compensation as an incentive to become an FDC provider. Our sense was that while CDC caregivers have achieved a modicum of professionalization, so that increased wages were seen as both legitimate and an important way of providing program quality, such thinking had not extended to FDC.

The funding of CDS presents a range of challenges, beginning with the issue of commander discretion and fenced funds, and ending with the issue of who will pay for crayons. Funding issues also affect parental preferences with regard to FDC.

These complexities are exacerbated in many places by a lack of clarity about the fiscal expectations for CDS. On a number of the installations that we visited, CDS staff operated under the expectation that CDS would at least break even. Such expectations had led to some troubling and demoralizing practices. Infant care in the CDC on several installations was eliminated because it cost too much to provide. Caregivers in many CDCs told us that they purchase their own supplies because of inadequate budgets.

Funding problems also contribute to strict limitations on FDC coordinator positions in some locations. Many parents couched their preference for the CDC in monetary terms. Particularly in places where the CDC does not accept infants, unregulated FDC fees had escalated to the point where FDC care rivaled the cost of civilian care.

We found a strong tendency among our respondents--both parents and military personnel--to rate their CDC highly. In contrast to their high-quality ratings for CDCs, parents often expressed concerns about the quality of care in FDC homes. Shared perceptions of lower FDC quality reflect command and parent anxieties, but may also reflect a failure by the DoD and the services to publicize information that supports FDC care.

For installation commanders and other members of the command, liability issues surrounding the delivery of child care represent major concerns. For the most part, safety concerns in the CDCs were perceived to have been effectively dealt with in current regulations. Most of our respondents' safety and liability concerns focused on FDC. Commanders in particular worried about what went on in these quarters, and regretted that only limited monitoring was possible. The relative lack of concern about safety and liability in Youth Activities may be a legacy of the original mission as provider of recreational services.

The child care options available to military families--CDC, FDC, YA, civilian centers, and civilian home care providers--vary substantially in the flexibility that they provide parents who may have long or unpredictable duty hours.

If readiness were the primary or only goal of military child care, one would expect to see the child development center used primarily by those whose duty hours were stable or who had a spouse or other resource person who could cover when duty hours were long or unpredictable, whereas FDC would be strongly favored by single parents, dual military families, or those who for other reasons needed flexibility in their child care arrangement. But we found instead a heavy reliance on child development centers, which provide the least flexible care on the installation. During our installation visits, we heard of many instances where the inflexible hours at the CDC had created difficulties for parents and in some cases for whole units.

Inflexibility is not limited to hours of operation. Two areas that cause particular difficulty for parents are sick child policies and the administration of medication to recovering children. The inconsistency between the notion of child care as a means of increasing readiness and the lack of attention to such issues as sick child care was striking.[5]

Excess Demand

Everywhere we went, excess demand was a major topic of discussion, and on many installations, excess demand was perceived to be the most pressing and important child care issue.

Given how waiting lists are currently managed and demand is assessed, it is impossible to determine how many families have acceptable care but want a cheaper alternative, how many have care of unacceptable quality, and how many are not working because of the inability to obtain subsidized care.

Some excess demand results from the way that military child care is funded. Subsidizing a limited number of child care slots will typically result in excess demand and waiting lists. The extent to which waiting lists consist of parents who cannot work because of a lack of child care cannot be determined without an in-depth study of the relationship between child care costs and the labor supply of military spouses.

Excess demand has led to pressure nearly everywhere to construct new facilities. But the decision to request military construction (MILCON) funds for a new child development center was rarely an easy one. Requesting the construction of a child care center in lieu of, for example, a supply depot raises difficult questions about the role and importance of child care to military operations.

The decision to build a new CDC typically raises questions about the role and viability of FDC as well. CDC construction requests also raise questions about what child care is--a service, a benefit, or an entitlement--and how much child care needs to be provided.

Decisions to request new construction may risk additional problems. We heard several times about an installation on which a new center had been requested and built, based on a very large waiting list. When the center failed to fill immediately after it opened, it created a "very embarrassing" situation for the commander and CDS staff. More awareness of the ways and the time frame in which new centers fill might enable centers to open at more propitious times, or would at least provide commanding officers and CDS staff with ammunition against charges of overbuilding.

Commander concerns about overstated needs and empty child development centers are fueled by the imprecise ways in which demand is measured. Virtually everywhere, waiting lists are used to index demand. The substantial variation in the ways in which waiting lists are developed, maintained, and monitored across installations make the counts of people on these lists extremely untrustworthy.

A first step in understanding excess demand involves standardizing waiting list procedures and monitoring, so that waiting lists become comparable across installations. A second is to better predict demand.

Despite their limitations, long waiting lists in many locations suggest a fairly high level of excess demand for child care services. We found almost everywhere that this demand is being addressed through the expansion of FDC. Other responses to excess demand were notable for their absence.

Secondary Analyses

Nearly 83 percent of all Army families with preschool-aged children surveyed rely on some kind of child care more than five hours per week. A large percentage (45 percent) of families rely on more than one type of child care, suggesting that the child care needs of most families cannot be filled by one type of care. Whereas 17.6 percent of all Army families report some use of Army CDCs, only 3.5 percent rely on them exclusively. Furthermore, only 8 percent use the CDC as their modal (i.e., most frequently used) type of care arrangement.

A greater proportion of single-parent families report relying on Army CDC as their modal child care arrangement, which is not surprising given that single parents receive first priority for CDC slots.

Nearly one-third of all families report fair or poor child care during deployments of two or more weeks. Families in which the spouse did not work outside the home were no less likely than families in which the spouse was employed outside the home to report this problem.

Parents on average lose about three days per year from duty for child care reasons, a significant amount of time when viewed from the perspective of an employer. Single parents report a significantly higher number of days (eight) per year lost from duty for these reasons.

The highest number of days lost to duty because of children and child care can be found among CDC users. The lowest number of days lost to duty are found among users of family-based care. This suggests that CDC care may be a less reliable source of care than FDC, even though the perception of many parents we interviewed in our site visits was to the contrary. This association between CDC care and more days lost is not surprising, given the more flexible nature of family day care.

A significantly higher proportion of CDC users report fair or poor ratings than do FDC users. It is interesting that our site visits revealed that most parents strongly prefer the CDC, yet the data show that parents using FDC were more satisfied with their child care arrangements than were CDC users.


Based on our interviews and secondary analyses, we have a number of recommendations on how the DoD might improve the management and delivery of child development services on military installations. Our recommendations are based on the perspective of military child care as employer-sponsored child care, which implies that child care services must benefit the employer, as well as enhance the welfare of the children who receive services.

The goals of military child care should be clarified and efforts made to address these goals through CDS operations and priorities.

The measurement of demand should be standardized and the cost per slot of care in CDCs and FDC should be determined.

To do so, efforts should be made to:

  • Standardize waiting lists
  • Analyze excess demand
  • Estimate the full cost per slot of CDC and FDC care.
A more systemic approach to the provision of child care should be considered.

Elements of this approach might include:

  • Helping parents find alternative care
  • Providing more flexible care
  • Reexamining CDS' organizational location.
Closer integration of FDC with CDS should be considered.

Integration might include:

  • Strengthened FDC provider training and oversight
  • Marketing of FDC care to parents and command
  • Selective subsidization of FDC care
  • Reduction of FDC provider disincentives
  • Targeting of services so that family and military needs are better met.
A systematic assessment of Youth Activities and its increasing involvement in the provision of care to young children should be initiated immediately.

Administrators should be educated about child care quality.

[1]The name for child care provided by military family members in military quarters on base varies across the services. We use the term family day care because it is used by both the Air Force and Marine Corps. The Army calls its program family child care, whereas the Navy uses the term family home care.

[2]To put capacity figures into perspective, recent data based on matches of active duty personnel records with Defense Eligibility and Enrollment System (DEERS) data indicate that as of December 31, 1990, there were 453,696 dependents of active duty members aged 0-4 years. This figure represents all children, and thus includes some fraction whose parents have not sought and will not seek military child care.

[3]The match has been continued under DoD policy.

[4]This pattern of greater regulation of centers also occurs in the civilian sector (Hayes, Palmer, and Zaslow, 1990). There, the vast majority of family-based child care providers are unlicensed (Fosburg, 1981; Glantz, Layzer, and Battaglia, 1988).

[5]Although some efforts have been made to address the issue, it remains a difficult problem.