A number of years ago, I was invited to the Pentagon to talk about a work and family study I was conducting. Anyone who knows me may find this fact pretty incongruous. But I was intrigued to find out about the human resources side of the military. Given my history of antiwar and women’s rights activities – and the fact that my father had been subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s – I fully imagined that I wouldn’t make it through the security screening. But, to my surprise, I sailed through. I found myself being chaperoned through dingy hallways to a very nondescript office for a meeting with a powerhouse of a woman who headed up programming on family supports for military “members” and their families.
Over the next two years, I worked with her and a real live Colonel, a kind and gentle soul who was an expert on domestic violence issues in the military. Our work together focused on assessing how well various military family support agencies were able to collaborate. Their “mission” was to support families through the challenges of dealing with deployment and loss.
I initially felt like a fish out of water working within this institution. But I soon connected with the human dimension and discovered that within the military, there are people from incredibly diverse backgrounds – including political perspectives – who really care about people’s well-being. I also learned that the military has far more progressive family policies than governmental policies in the civilian sphere, which rely on a hodgepodge of precarious private and public funding to service those in need.
I discovered, for example, that the military provides high-quality, affordable and accessible childcare in which early childhood teachers are paid good wages. According to Gail Zelman and Susan Gates, researchers at RAND,
“While there are no easy or obvious solutions to the childcare problem, policymakers can look to an unlikely source from ideas about improving childcare: the military. The US Department of Defense (DoD) has succeeded in optimizing the three key aspects of child care delivery – availability, quality and affordability – a juggling act unduplicated anywhere else in the country. The system currently meets around 60% of the assessed need, serving about 176,000 children 6 weeks to 12 years old in 900 centers and in 9,200 family child care homes nationwide. (Family child care homes are usually run by military spouses.)”
Let’s be honest here: The military’s desire for high levels of productivity and commitment among its members – and the need for support from military family members – are the drivers underpinning military support for these policies.
So what can policymakers learn from DoD’s experience, ask researchers Zellman and Gates?
“The clear message is that affordable, high-quality child care requires a system level commitment to quality, as well as incentives and funding to make it a reality.”
In contrast, our “civilian” child care system in the U.S. is underfunded and suffers from lack of quality, which can largely be attributed to low wages and inadequate support for its workers. In fact, the turnover rate of early childhood teachers in the U.S. is between 25-30%. Research points to a “turnover climate” which affects overall program quality. One study found that highly trained teachers (BA level or higher with specialized training) “were more likely to leave their jobs if they earned lower wages, worked with fewer highly trained teachers and worked in a climate with less stability.” (Whitebook, at al, 2001). Therefore, worker retention is linked to the stability of the program and ultimately, to higher quality.
In addition to high quality, affordable child care, the military offers paid parental leave and universal health care. Ironically, when progressives promote these policies at the federal (civilian) level, conservatives cry ‘socialism!’
In a memo entitled, “For Our Air Force Family,” Lieutenant General, USAF, Assistant Vice Chief of Staff, Joseph H. Wehrle, Jr., says,
“The United States Air Force is committed to taking care of its own. Steadfast, homefront support is provided to family members by the Integrated Delivery System… As always, we remain One Force, One Family.”
in the military, the credo – “We take care of our own.” – is motivated by the belief that this will support “readiness” for battle, increase productivity, reduce turnover, and ease the process of leaving one’s family behind to put oneself “in harms way” around the globe.
Without such immediate drivers in the corporate or non-military governmental sphere, it is hard to make the case – or as human resource professionals would say, the business case – for progressive family policies. But we don’t have to only look to Europe for inspiration around family policies; we can look to the U.S. military to find some of the most progressive policies in this nation. Don’t we all deserve them?