A recent Department of Defense survey found that a quarter of military spouses are unemployed—a rate roughly six times the 2017 national average of about 4 percent (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and nearly two and a half times the rate in the majority of the country’s most impoverished neighborhoods. I’ve lost track of how many fellow military spouses have told me they abandoned careers they loved and were proud of solely because of the obstacles the military life presented. I am lucky to work in an industry that can often accommodate remote work (since my husband is training to be a Navy doctor), but for so many people this isn’t the case. And, for that matter, I myself don’t know what I’ll do if we ever end up stationed in Japan or Hawaii, because the time difference makes being awake during continental–United States working hours essentially impossible.
The only other population with a similar rate of joblessness is the Kusilvak Census Area in Alaska, where the unemployment rate is about three points lower. Of the military spouses who do work, more than half say they are working in positions that they are overqualified for. And many aren’t earning very much: According to a White House report, military spouses earn on average 26.8 percent less than their nonmilitary peers, amounting to more than $10,000 of lost income each year.
Military spouses are at a unique disadvantage when it comes to finding gainful employment. Frequent moves among duty stations are riddled with complications and expenses, ranging from the seemingly insignificant (such as delivery errors and damaged personal belongings) to the higher-stakes issues of finding new schools or nannies or daycare for a family’s children. Almost a third of military families report more than $1,000 of unreimbursed expenses during their last move, and 72 percent cannot obtain reliable access to child care.
Someone has to deal with these challenges, and it often ends up being the non-active-duty spouse. All this moving around can lead to gaps and inconsistencies on a resume and can scream to hiring managers, This person could have to relocate at any second, which might discourage companies from bringing military spouses on board. Roles on base for which spouses are qualified might already be occupied, due to there being more residents than job openings, or wildly outside of a spouse’s line of work. For example, there might be cashier positions available at the on-base grocery story, but no jobs for an architect, banker, or chef. And when couples are stationed at a base abroad, military spouses might have trouble getting a work visa.
If a military spouse is a woman—and nine out of 10 active-duty military spouses are women—the problem is exacerbated. Women face the motherhood penalty already, and the Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey revealed a not insignificant gap in the way male and female military spouses are employed and paid:
Almost half (49%) of male military spouse respondents reported working full-time, compared to just 27% of female military spouse respondents. Male and female military spouse respondents also differed substantially on the impact of family obligations on their career, with 50% of female spouses citing family obligations as a top career obstacle compared to 30% of male spouses. 44% of employed male military spouse respondents earned more than $50,000 in 2016, while only 19% of females reported the same.
No matter their gender, nearly 35 percent of military spouses who do work require professional licenses to maintain their status as doctors, lawyers, or teachers, for example. Those licenses often don’t transfer across state lines—a major issue considering military families are 10 times more likely to have moved across state lines than nonmilitary families.