Military Child Care: Off-Base Financial Assistance and Wait Lists for On-Base Care

GAO-21-127R Published: Dec 01, 2020. Publicly Released: Dec 01, 2020.
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Fast Facts

The Department of Defense operates the country's largest employer-sponsored child care program. It provided care to more than 210,000 children of military families in FY 2019. Most of these families use child care centers on bases, but DOD also offers some subsidies to make off-base child care more affordable.

We reviewed a 2020 DOD report on its subsidies for off-base providers and efforts to reduce wait lists for on-base child care.

The military services are working to standardize subsidies for off-base child care.

DOD has launched a child care web portal, monitored wait list data from this portal, and identified areas of greatest need.

Children and their teacher in a learning environment

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What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD) has reviewed the financial assistance it provides for off-base child care services and taken steps to standardize this assistance across the military services. Specifically, in August 2018, representatives of each service agreed to work toward a goal of standardizing the only element of the fee assistance calculation that varies among the services—the maximum provider rate. DOD officials said that they assess progress toward this goal each year, but have not set a definite deadline for full standardization. With respect to assistance for off-base child care at high-cost duty stations, DOD's 2020 report on its child care programs states that the Air Force, Marines, and Navy review high-cost locations annually, and the services may approve increased provider rate caps for specific high-cost locations. In addition, it states that the services may grant waivers allowing increased fee assistance for individual families experiencing hardship.

DOD has also assessed factors that contribute to wait lists for on-base child care. According to DOD’s report, DOD found that wait lists are the result of a myriad of factors, including staff shortages and facility conditions that vary across service locations. Officials said DOD has worked for several years to analyze and address wait lists. In 2017, DOD launched a web portal that consolidates child care data across the services and in August 2019, DOD officials began monthly monitoring of wait list data from this portal. These data allowed DOD to identify four geographic regions and six additional locations that account for the majority of wait lists, and focus their efforts on addressing the issues affecting these regions and locations, according to the report. DOD officials said that any requests for additional resources to help address wait lists must be handled through the individual services’ budgeting processes.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOD offers child care in a variety of on- and off-base settings for children of military families. In fiscal year 2020 these child care programs received nearly $1.2 billion in federal funds; in addition, parents pay a portion of the costs. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 required DOD to report on elements of its financial assistance to off-base child care providers and wait lists for on-base child care, and included a provision for GAO to review DOD's report.

This report describes DOD's assessment of (1) financial assistance provided to off-base child care providers, and (2) its efforts to reduce wait lists for child care at military bases. GAO reviewed DOD's report on this assessment, interviewed DOD officials, and reviewed relevant federal law.

For more information, contact Kathryn A. Larin at (202) 512-7215 or

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