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Research Questions

  1. What types of disruptions are faced by military families going through a PCS move?
  2. What DoD programs and policies are in place to address these disruptions and enhance family stability?

One key aspect of military life is frequent relocation, also known as permanent change of station (PCS) moves. According to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), approximately one-third of military service members experience a PCS move every year. This report was created to assist DoD with preparing a congressionally mandated report on actions taken to enhance the stability of military families going through a PCS move and to provide a broader analysis of the relationship between PCS moves and family stability. The authors used a mixed-methods approach to compile a list of PCS-related family disruptions, to conduct a deeper dive into select disruptions identified by the sponsor, and to understand what programs exist to address these disruptions. This analysis demonstrates that moves are a stressor for military families and are associated with a broad set of disruptions to family stability. The authors found that there are a multitude of existing programs, policies, and services provided by DoD that address the many disruptions generated by PCS moves. While this research did not find evidence of a need for new programs, the results imply that there is room to improve the PCS move process to further alleviate family disruptions, particularly by increasing the lead time before a move is scheduled so that service members and their families have more time to plan their relocation. Methodologically rigorous evaluation of existing programs and services is also needed. Finally, the authors offer recommendations for areas where future work could help determine ways that existing programs could be further improved to better serve military families.

Key Findings

Moving is disruptive

  • The literature contains causal evidence that PCS moves lead to losses in spousal earnings and suggestive evidence that PCS moves result in spousal unemployment, spousal underemployment, and delays in employment among spouses who need to obtain credentials at the new duty location.
  • Issues related to moving during peak season, or summer moves, were a frequently mentioned problem related to timeliness.
  • Delays in the release of congressional funding needed to support PCS moves, as well as a lack of connectivity between electronic systems used to generate personnel assignments and logistical aspects of moves, could contribute to disruptions related to timely receipt of PCS orders.
  • The literature reports suggestive evidence that PCS moves are negatively correlated with service member retention intentions, and these negative correlations may be exacerbated by issues related to the timing of PCS moves in relation to deployments and the untimely receipt of PCS orders. Secondary data analysis using Deployment Life Study data showed that service member military commitment, retention intentions, and satisfaction dropped, and spouse financial stress increased, in the period immediately prior to a PCS move.
  • Increasing the lead time given to families prior to a PCS move could reduce disruptions.

Existing policies, programs, and services cover all identified disruptions

  • The authors identified a broad set of programs, policies, and services offered by DoD to address disruptions associated with PCS moves.
  • Almost all of the disruptions — including household management; spouse employment; service member, spouse, and child psychosocial outcomes; child school involvement and engagement; child care; and military family life — are addressed by multiple programs.
  • Thus, there is no evidence to suggest a need for new programs, policies, or services.


  • Identify ways to ensure that funding needed to support PCS moves is available when needed. The earlier funding is released by Congress, for example, the sooner service members can be notified of a move and start planning their relocation. DoD should consider any programming and budgeting actions that would functionally increase lead time for service members facing a PCS move.
  • Improve the demand signal for logistical aspects of PCS moves to mitigate disruptions. A better identification of when the move is going to occur would allow families to get a head start on securing movers, establishing transportation, finding housing, and managing other logistical aspects of relocation.
  • Sync personnel assignment, pay, and PCS systems electronically. The authors suggest instituting an automatic notification system that would send an electronic alert to the U.S. Transportation Command to start the move process. This notification system would likely need to work through a financial system (i.e., personnel actions would impact pay actions and trigger financial transfers, signaling the start of the logistical PCS process).
  • Conduct additional research to evaluate the relative effectiveness of different types of service provision mechanisms (e.g., online, call centers, in person) and determine why certain families participate in existing programs while others do not. DoD and the service branches should collect data on the extent to which service members and families move together or at different times to determine whether either approach mitigates or exacerbates PCS disruptions and to evaluate proposals designed to give families more flexibility along this dimension.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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