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Tina Casey headshot

A Job Is Not Enough: How To (Really) Support Our Troops

By Tina Casey
Veterans and military families

Military veterans who return to civilian life can face a battery of hurdles. Many employers have responded by engaging in new programs to hire veterans. That is all well and good, but much less attention has been paid to the challenges faced by military spouses seeking civilian jobs. That is a yawning gap that no single employer can fill.

One paycheck is not enough

Anthony Noto, CEO of the financial services firm SoFi, pinpointed the military spouse problem in a recent op-ed for CNN. “Serving our country can cause unique financial challenges down the road,” he wrote “For some, these financial limitations last far beyond their initial transition into the post-military working world. Frequent moves can make it difficult for military spouses to find jobs that offer a steady, second source of income, limiting families to one paycheck.”

Noto’s piece focuses specifically on helping veterans plan for retirement. However, his mention of military spouses deserves closer attention, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced more women and other family caretakers to leave their jobs and tend full-time to the needs of their children and other dependents.

When a military family moves, a working spouse loses more than a job, even in the best of times. They can also be cut off from their caretaker networks including family, friends and neighbors. When they do find work in their new location, they may need to rely more heavily on paid caretakers. That can have a significant impact on their take-home income.

Much has been made of the job-ready skills acquired by military veterans, which help them take advantage of employment opportunities in new growth areas like the wind energy and solar energy sectors. However, their spouses bring no such training to the table. Military spouses also face difficulty in continuing their education or training for new skills, limiting their opportunities when the family transitions to civilian life.

The employment challenges faced by military spouses impact the entire household. Maintaining a family on one military income can be difficult under the best of circumstances. The high cost of rent and other expenses in some military communities has long created additional pressure on household incomes. The pandemic and the current inflationary environment have exacerbated the situation, leading more active-duty families to rely more on food banks and other sources of social support than ever before. 

Employers need to recognize that student loans are a serious problem

Employers may have limited avenues through which to provide assistance directly to military spouses, but Noto advises that employers can at least help provide significant assistance to military families by enabling more veterans to save for retirement.

“Recent research has confirmed veteran families struggle to maintain adequate emergency savings funds, with nearly half (49 percent) of those who receive no pension reporting they have less than $500 in their emergency savings (and nearly one in four families who receive a pension reporting the same),” Noto observes.

Noto suggests that employers can start by educating themselves about the financial situation of the individual veterans they hire, especially in the area of student loans. He points out that many veterans start their retirement plan only after they finish their education through their GI Bill benefits, which means they get a very late start on saving. Paying off student loans can further delay retirement savings.

Standard retirement plans don't cut it either

Employers that offer standard 401(k) plans are not helping employees who are so burdened by student debt that they cannot afford to contribute to a retirement plan. Employers need to be proactive and pursue solutions, such as an IRS Private Letter Ruling. Noto also indicates that lobbying in support of proposed federal legislation in that area would enable employers to accommodate student debt in their 401(k) plans more easily.

He also urges employers to understand that many veterans do not pursue or finish a college education, placing them at risk of falling behind their civilian counterparts. A holistic “well-being” program would address the cost of education from the past to the present, and into the future. These programs account for student loans, current tuition and college savings plans for dependents where applicable. 

Other ways to help veterans and their families

Noto also encourages employers to provide educational resources and guidance that can help veterans with bad credit records avoid similar mishaps in the future.

Handing veteran employees a pile of brochures and a list of links can be a good start, but Noto urges employers to connect veteran employees with financial planners who can give them individual, personalized attention.  

“As the colliding worlds of work, company culture and education continue to evolve, our definition of well-being — and efforts to support veterans' unique needs — will need to do the same. In the meantime, ensuring resources are allocated toward programs that provide a mix of short- and long-term impact, while also delivering measurable, mutual benefit to both employers and employees, will foster a brighter financial future for all,” Noto concludes.

The missing link in all of this is the military spouse. They face unique challenges in the civilian workforce, and those difficulties are compounded when children and other dependents are members of their household.

Corporate leaders from Etsy to Microsoft, Patagonia and Seventh Generation understand how the lack of affordable child care holds back families and businesses. As members of the Care Can’t Wait Coalition, they have been lobbying for more federal support for both child and family care services.

Access to child and family care also impacts access to affordable higher education and job training, two other key areas that could be addressed through federal action.

As originally conceived, U.S. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill would go a long way toward filling these gaps in social policy. Unfortunately, as of this writing the bill is at risk of dying on the vine. If it does survive, its family care provisions and other social spending are all but certain to be whittled down to provide less help to fewer people.

Corporate leaders who profess to support veterans can pick up the slack by lobbying for additional federal child care, family support, education and job training programs that pick up where Build Back Better leaves off and provide more resources for military spouses as well as veterans.

Image credit: George Pak/Pexels (1 and 2)

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey