Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University and now a senior fellow at New America, wrote a thoughtful column for Foreign Policy recently on the pay and benefits structure in the U.S. military. The country spends an estimated $768 billion per year on defense, Brooks estimates, and a portion of that cost goes to decent pay for military personnel (according to the Congressional Budget Office, the average member of the military is paid better than 75 percent of civilian federal workers with comparable experience) and solid benefits. Among these benefits are free health care, low- to no-cost higher education and housing, and retirement with pension after 20 years of service.
As Brooks rightly points out, all these extra benefits reflect the esteem we as a society have for those who serve in the military. Still, there are some lessons that the public could borrow from this so-called “socialist” military workforce. Chief among these lessons is another military perk that Brooks doesn’t mention in her piece: child care.
The military’s system is arguably the gold standard for child care in the United States. According to a fall 2011 report from the National Association of Child Care Resources & Referral Agencies (NACCRA), now known as Child Care Aware of America, the military system has three features that make it very different from the child care system that most parents encounter:
- Military families have universal access to child care, and tuition is priced based on the family’s ability to pay.
- Through a robust workforce training program, the military ensures that those who work at child care centers can be accountable for the health, safety and development of children. Staff members with better training receive increased benefits, like insurance and annual leave.
- Congress mandated in 1989 that the DoD inspect its child care programs on a quarterly basis.
This is in stark contrast to civilian child care in the United States. The U.S. is one of the only developed countries to not have universal child care, and there is no centralized workforce training program or set of requirements to determine who is qualified to care for infants and toddlers. Further, 20 percent of children in child care centers paid through federal Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) funds are unlicensed and half of the states inspect licensed child care settings once a year or less. The resulting system is too often costly for parents, and of mediocre or low quality.
Interestingly, tuition costs for military personnel are comparable in these centers, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office. It that found that the U.S. Air Force child care programs cost roughly 7 percent more than civilian programs because they pay around a dollar more per hour in wages.
These comparisons are surely well understood within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Linda K. Smith, former director of NACCRRA, is now a deputy assistant secretary there, replacing Joan Lombardi last fall. (She’s also inter-departmental liaison for early childhood development for the Administration for Children and Families.) Her roots are in the military and served as director of the Office of Family Policy for the Secretary of Defense, where she was one of the primary architects of the military's child care program.