Bolster military families

Thanks to Michelle Obama, the issue of their struggles is finally getting the attention it deserves

November 23, 2008|By Kate Sylvester

Michelle Obama has yet to move into the White House, but she has already begun to do our country a great service by beginning a critical national conversation about the struggles of many military families.

Thanks to intense media coverage, the public knows about the very serious health problems of returning war veterans and the difficulties they face returning to the work force. But the public is far less aware of the everyday difficulties that confront so many military families - whether their service members go to war or not.

The military services now include many more members with children than during the Vietnam era. Today, about 1.8 million children are growing up in military families, and as many as 700,000 U.S. children have at least one parent deployed overseas.

It may seem to civilians that children growing up in military families - where at least one parent has a regular paycheck and access to health care - is enough to ensure children's well-being. It's not.

The lowest-paid U.S. service members make barely more than $1,100 a month. Families that lack access to limited military housing often can't afford to rent decent housing in the private sector, and some that own homes are facing foreclosure. At least 500,000 military families have incomes low enough to qualify for the earned income tax credit.

Military families often live far from immediate or extended family members who could support them in times of crisis. Service members are frequently reassigned, forcing spouses to give up their jobs. And their children don't put down roots. They change schools three times as often as other children and must routinely say goodbye to friends and familiar neighborhoods. And for many families, the constant possibility that a parent will be deployed to a war zone adds nearly unbearable uncertainty to daily life.

During his campaign, President-elect Barack Obama highlighted his plans to expand health care benefits for military families and supported a "21st-century GI Bill" to offer an affordable college education to veterans and their families. These efforts are critical.

But while the federal government controls these larger issues, the states control or influence many common obstacles facing military families. In some states, for example, military family members can't qualify for in-state tuition when they move because of military orders. And students in military families who move to new states sometimes have difficulty completing high school because they lack certain graduation requirements.

States have begun to respond. More than a dozen have joined an interstate compact that seeks to remove barriers for students transferring from one state to another. A Maryland task force is considering whether to join that compact. Maryland also provides unemployment support for military spouses who must terminate their jobs when they leave the state.

Good things are happening around the country: Texas offers free preschool for military families. Illinois has a grace period for military families to reinstate their conventional health insurance after leaving the military. Indiana offers in-state tuition for military families. Georgia used evidence that payday lenders were taking advantage of soldiers to get a tough payday lending law passed in that state. And Virginia allows child-support payments to be transferred to individuals who care for military children when their parents are deployed.

There are hundreds of such relatively simple fixes - in dozens of policy areas - that could make life easier for the families that serve our country. States can learn from what other states are doing. And even though state budgets are tight, many of these ideas would incur no cost or be relatively inexpensive.

Gov. Martin O'Malley took an important step forward by establishing the Governor's Subcabinet on Base Realignment and Closure to prepare for the influx of as many as 45,000 new military and civilian personnel. But as state officials look to ensure the infrastructure, economic development and technology needs of these new residents, they should follow Michelle Obama's lead and consider the overall well-being of their families.

Kate Sylvester, who was raised in a military family, is a Washington, D.C.-based children's advocate. Her e-mail is ksylvester@dckids.org.

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