08 October 2013

In Defense of Military Families

The thing that is really pissing me off about the government shutdown, the thing that offends me on visceral level, is the cavalier atiitude people seem to have about how military families are being impacted.  As families ask about receiving promised bonus payments and commissaries being open, many feel quite free to comment on how selfish these families are being.  The number of people, specifically women which I think might play a role here, who have been informed that their problem is bad budgeting and conspicuous consumption is simply mind blowing.  This sentiment plays into major myths surrounding military dependents.  There is a pervasive belief that all military members get huge salaries and astronomical benefits such as free rent, free schooling and free healthcare.  The corollary is that all military families, specifically military wives are just glorified welfare queens waltzing around in BMWs and designer labels looking for the next handout.

Let me just start by saying that the salaries within the service can be good.  Chris was fortunate enough to be making good money having been on the officer track.  There is a tax advantage to being in the military since certain portions of your pay, like housing allowances, are tax free.  The healthcare is great day-to-day since you pay no premiums or co-pays out of pocket (assuming you use TRICARE Prime, other options exists), but your overall "adjusted" salary reflects this.  You make "less money" in the service than industry because the military pay reflects the pay you would earn after taxes, retirement investing and health care expenses.  Basically, your military pay reflects the "take home" pay you would earn in industry after paying into healthcare, retirement and taxes.   The DoD handles all that for you and writes your paychecks accordingly.  There are bonuses and extra pay earned for various jobs that come at a premium, but when all is said and done, the military pay is generally commiserate with what you would earn in the wild for comparable skills, education and experience.

Sure, but therein lies the rub: you get paid similarly to what your skill set, education and experience would net in industry.  We made good money because when all was said and done Chris has a bachelors, and a masters and three years of specialized technical training. Add in 8 years of experience in the field and sure, you are in a position to make solidly middle-class money. However, if you have a GED, two years of experience and 6 months of technical school under your belt, you are not making a ton of money.  Not in the military, not in industry, not anywhere in this country.  If you are a young enlisted family with kids, living in housing then you get $800 twice a month to pay your bills, buy your food, put gas in your car, keep everyone in clothes and somehow save for the future.  When these families say they depend on those few thousand dollars of bonus money to catch up on bills and try to build saving, they really mean it.  When these families say they rely on the commissary's reduced prices to keep food on the table, they mean it. When people sneer that maybe these families should budget better, I am not sure they realize that all the budgeting in the world will not make $1600 a month provide for a family of four with much left over*.  Many enlisted families qualify for WIC and other assistance programs.  Many spouses have trouble finding work given the transient lifestyle and difficulties in finishing educational programs or gaining seniority at a job.  I have the better part of a master's degree and as a military spouse was unable to find work that paid enough to cover the costs of childcare thanks to our frequent moves.  Even in the best of cases it sucks.  It especially sucks when the little perks that help hold it all together are pulled away thanks to political game playing.

I do feel like I need to mention that this is also highly representative intersectional discrimination.  The people getting railed on for being bad financial planners and selfish brats are primarily women.  Now logically these are women who have taken on way more than the average life-partner struggling to keep it all together while their partner's work 100 hour weeks and deploy for months, or even years, at a time to often dangerous places.  However, to those who believe in the traditional bootstraps model of the American dream, they are just stupid moochers who blew all their husband's money on shoes. Add in that many of these women are women of color (there is a discussion to be had about racial disparity between ranks in the military, though today is not that day) and for many that helps forward the idea that these are all just the 47% wandering around expecting something for nothing.  You know, if "something" means "your promised pay and benefits" and "nothing" means "continually uprooting your life so your spouse can literally risk his life for this country."   I am not really explaining the nuance well, but you get my point.  When the people speaking up about the challenges of this lifestyle, especially in times like these, are just silly-non-white-women it is culturally acceptable to disregard those concerns.  That is a nice double whammy for these families...ask me how I know.

Everyone will eventually feel the impact of this shut down. Many people I know are on furlough.  We almost didn't get paid at all.  My sister can't buy a house since all the mortgage stuff is tied up.  Medical facilities are having trouble keeping doors open, people can't get flu vaccines and epidemic updates, veterans benefits are dwindling...the list goes on and on.  When all is said and done, this is going to suck for everyone, so lets just try and be friendly to each other.  The only people who deserve blame for this are the handful of elected officials who have chosen to put extremist political values ahead of the needs of their constituents.  If you need to be mean to someone, be mean to them, not the families of those serving our country.  The military may be a hopelessly misguided nightmare, but people who serve still deserve to be treated compassionately like human beings.

*We can get into the idea that you don't have to be in the military, anyone can theoretically go to college, get a better job, live the American Dream and chose not to have kids at 20, but that also plays in to elitist-bootstraps rhetoric. Those are universal truths that we tell ourselves, not the truths of actually living in the country.  And around, and around,  we go!