2021 Active Duty Spouse Survey Results: Shocked but Not Surprised

Active Duty Spouse

On February 9, the Department of Defense released the long-awaited results of its 2021 Survey of Active Duty Spouses. The survey, which was conducted between July and November, 2021, polled more than 11,000 military spouses on a range of topics, from their family’s financial well-being to their employment status and child care access.

The results were shocking but not surprising. They reflected what we’ve been telling DoD for years – military families are resilient, but they need more support to withstand the challenges associated with the military lifestyle.

Among the survey’s top findings were:

One in four military spouses reported experiencing low or very low food security.

That number is consistent with DoD’s survey of active duty service members released last year, as well as a recent RAND report on military family food insecurity. After years of downplaying military family food insecurity and claiming there was not enough data on the issue, DoD and Congress can no longer ignore this crisis. While there may be no simple solutions, easing military families’ access to nutrition benefits like SNAP and expanding eligibility for the new Basic Needs Allowance would help more military families put food on the table.

The rate of military spouse unemployment is 21%.

This is statistically unchanged since DoD surveyed spouses in 2015. Unsurprisingly, the main reason for unemployment cited by spouses was the need to care for children not in school or daycare. There was some good news on the spouse employment front, however: an increased number of spouses reported that they were employed in their area of education or training.

PCS moves are a major contributor to families’ financial stress.

Spouses reported that PCS moves led to unemployment, lost income, and the added stress of unreimbursed moving expenses. Spouses who were unemployed spent an average of 19 weeks looking for work. The job search was further complicated by a lack of child care: 47% of spouses reported difficulty finding child care following a PCS.

Spouses’ satisfaction with military life has declined steadily since DoD began surveying military spouses in 2012.

In 2021, only 49% of spouses reported that they were satisfied with military life. Unsurprisingly, the number of spouses who support their wife or husband remaining on active duty has also gone down, with 54% reporting that they think their spouse should remain in the military.

Although the survey was thorough, we were left with more than a few questions, which we would love to see DoD include on future surveys:

  • How does military life affect spouses’ retirement planning? Are spouses contributing to their own retirement accounts? How does that affect their families’ financial well-being and their feelings about military life?
  • Is there any correlation between spouse employment and mental well-being?
  • How does the experience of being a dual service military family affect members’ satisfaction with military life?
  • How many military spouses are veterans themselves and how does that affect their satisfaction with the military lifestyle?

Ultimately, these results should be a wakeup call for Congress and the Department of Defense. Military families want to serve but are finding it impossible to overcome persistent military spouse unemployment, inaccessible affordable child care, and ongoing financial pressures. There are no simple solutions to these problems, but they must be addressed if we are going to sustain the all-volunteer force our nation relies upon.

Did you take the 2021 Active Duty Spouse Survey? What are your thoughts on the results? Share your story below!