Military Child Care: Potential Costs and Impacts of Expanding Off-Base Child Care Assistance for Children of Deceased Servicemembers

GAO-22-105186 Published: Dec 14, 2021. Publicly Released: Dec 14, 2021.
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Fast Facts

The Department of Defense subsidizes the cost of off-base child care through its fee assistance program. Currently, only spouses of servicemembers who die in combat-related incidents can receive this aid for their children.

For FY 2020, we estimated potential costs if spouses of servicemembers who die in noncombat-related incidents would also be eligible for assistance. We found that costs could range from about $1.3 to $6.4 million. In addition, expanding fee assistance to these families wouldn't substantially increase the demand for child care services or impact active-duty families.

Military family with child

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Highlights

What GAO Found 

The Department of Defense (DOD) subsidizes the cost of off-base child care through its fee assistance program. Although the spouses of servicemembers who die in combat-related incidents are currently eligible to receive fee assistance for their children, spouses of servicemembers who die in noncombat-related incidents are not. According to GAO's analysis of DOD data, the estimated cost of providing fee assistance to all eligible children of servicemembers who die in noncombat-related incidents in fiscal year 2020 could have ranged from approximately $1.3 million to $6.4 million, based on low- and high- cost locations and average length of time in the program. This would have represented an increase of about 1 to 7 percent of DOD's fiscal year 2019 fee assistance costs for off-base child care. However, the actual costs of expanding fee assistance eligibility to children of servicemembers who die in noncombat-related incidents could vary from GAO's estimated cost range due to multiple factors. Such factors include the number of servicemembers who die in noncombat-related incidents who have children, awareness of the program, and the availability and cost of off-base care.

Expanding fee assistance to children of servicemembers who die in noncombat-related incidents would be unlikely to substantially increase the demand for child care services or impact active-duty families, according to DOD officials. DOD officials and representatives of Child Care Aware of America (CCAoA), the third-party administrator of the fee assistance program, said that a lack of high-quality child care providers is an ongoing challenge for active-duty servicemembers attempting to use the fee assistance program. However, families of servicemembers who die in noncombat-related incidents may already be using child care providers in the community and may not affect competition for limited openings, according to officials from one service branch. Further, given the relatively small number of additional children who would be eligible for fee assistance, it is unlikely that expanding fee assistance eligibility would have a substantial impact on the overall demand for child care services, according to DOD officials. Additionally, DOD officials said that because the families of active-duty servicemembers would be in a higher priority grouping than families of servicemembers who die in noncombat-related incidents, these families would be unlikely to compete with active duty servicemembers for child care fee assistance.

Why GAO Did This Study 

DOD considers its child care program, which includes on-base and off-base child care for military families, a workforce support that directly affects military force readiness, efficiency, and retention. Most of the children in DOD's child care programs are cared for in subsidized child development centers on military bases. When military families cannot access on-base child care due to geographic distance or because there are no openings, DOD subsidizes the cost of off-base care through its fee assistance program.

The William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 (NDAA) includes a provision for GAO to review the implications of expanding fee assistance for off-base providers of child care services to survivors of members of the Armed Forces who die in non-combat related incidents in the line of duty. This report describes (1) the estimated costs of expanding fee assistance for off-base child care services to children of servicemembers who die in noncombat-related incidents and factors that drive those costs, and (2) the reported potential effects of such an expansion on the availability of off-base child care services for children of active-duty servicemembers.

To address these questions, GAO analyzed data from DOD on servicemember deaths and children of deceased servicemembers for fiscal years 2009 through 2020, as well as data on fee assistance applicants and participants from the military service branches and CCAoA. We interviewed DOD officials, including those from different service branches, and representatives of CCAoA. We also reviewed relevant federal laws and regulations and reports.

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

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