Airmen stand on the Yokota flight line with their six-month-old son at Yokota Air Base, Japan, April 26, 2021.

Airmen stand on the Yokota flight line with their six-month-old son at Yokota Air Base, Japan, April 26, 2021. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kyle Johnson

Fewer Military Families Would Recommend Uniformed Service, Survey Finds

The Military Family Advisory Network poll may have warning signs for recruiters.

Fewer military families would recommend military life to those interested in serving, saying the hardships outweigh the pay and benefits, according to a report released Thursday.

“When we're going through this report and seeing some of the findings and the reality that a lot of families are having a hard time making ends meet, it's not all that startling to see that there will be a decline here,” said Shannon Razsadin, president and executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network, an organization that provides resources and conducts research on issues affecting military families. “But what I was really surprised by was, you know, that it was as big of a decline as it is.”

The group’s 2021 Military Family Support Programming Survey found that 62.9 percent of military and veteran families would recommend military life, down from 74.5 percent in 2019.

Civilians were also asked about whether they would recommend serving in the military, with 46.1 percent saying they would and 53.9 percent saying they would not—about the same as in 2019.

The report includes some of the reasons families gave for recommending military service—or not.

Responses from those who said they would not recommend military life centered around five major themes: that it is not family-friendly; the pay is low compared to the stress of the work; bad leadership; benefits like healthcare are not worth the struggles of military life; and the frequent moves and deployments.

“It is a difficult job and life, and the ‘benefits’ simply are not worth it. Especially since said benefits just keep dwindling and decreasing in quality the longer we are in,” one spouse of an active-duty sailor told the group.

Half a dozen themes were seen in responses from people who said they would recommend a military career: job security and financial stability; benefits, especially for retirement; healthcare and housing; travel and living abroad; public service and having a meaningful job; and the friendships and camaraderie.

Military families’ changing attitudes toward service may hinder future recruiting. According to Army Recruiting Command, 79 percent of recruits have a family member who served.

“We say internally the military is a family business. And so seeing this drop is, like I said, it is very concerning. And we need to look at how the whole family is supported,” Razsadin said.

A 2011 Pew Research Center survey found that three-fifths of veterans under the age of 40 had an immediate family member who served, compared to 39 percent of all adults in that age bracket. Veterans were also twice as likely than the public to say they have a child who served, according to the survey.

The military is already struggling to find enough recruits. Just 23 percent of 17- to 24-year-old Americans are eligible to enlist without a waiver of some kind, down from 29 percent in recent years, an Army spokesman said in an email to Defense One. Only 9 percent of those are willing to join the military, the lowest share in 15 years. The Army recently tried to recruit more people without a high school diploma but quickly reversed their decision.

“It's not a good story when we're looking at the recruitment numbers and we know anecdotally that the future of the all-volunteer force lies in military children,” Razsadin said about the decline in families recommending service. “So if you have military families who are less inclined to recommend service, I mean, that should get everyone's attention.”

More than 8,600 people participated in the MFAN survey from October 4 to December 15, 2021, hailing from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, two U.S. territories and 22 countries, according to the report. Most respondents were spouses of active-duty troops, between the ages of 25 and 39, and lived in a home with four people. Most were also enlisted families, with the largest portion coming from the Army, then the Air Force and Navy.

The survey has a new “family health scale” to measure respondents’ answers to questions about healthcare, family relationships, financial readiness, housing, food insecurity, and recommending military life. More than half of families, or 58.7 percent, reported “moderate” or “poor” health in these areas and more than 41 percent reported “excellent” health. Issues cited include access to health care appointments, ability to save money, housing costs, and experiencing hunger.

“Families at lower ranks and families in marginalized racial and ethnic groups are statistically less likely to indicate excellent family health,” according to the report.

Officer families experienced “excellent” family wellbeing at a rate that was more than double that of enlisted families, Razsadin said. While MFAN plans to study this disparity further, she believes this is due to pay and compensation.

The report has five recommendations, including “increase the availability of health care and mental health appointments,” improving the calculations for the housing allowance to help families amid rising costs, and more available child care services.