Proposal for 'GI Bill for Child Care' Aims to Boost Unemployed Military Spouses

U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti
U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, joins soldiers from Task Force Paxton, Pennsylvania National Guard for lunch during a congressional delegation visit held in Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, Feb. 19, 2024. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Cpt. Amanda Mayer)

Unemployed military spouses could have child care fully paid for during their job search under a proposal being crafted by a leading lawmaker.

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee's military quality-of-life panel, is advocating for what she has termed a "GI Bill for child care." The proposal would provide grants of up to $15,000 per kid to cover child care for 6-9 months while spouses try to reenter the workforce, according to a fact sheet provided by her office.

The proposal is meant to address a "chicken-and-egg kind of circumstance where sometimes you can't afford child care because you don't have a job, [but] you don't have a job because you can't afford child care," Houlahan told in a recent interview in her Washington, D.C., office.

Read Next: Navy Shock Trauma Platoon in Norway NATO Exercise Puts Lessons of Ukraine War to Use

"We want to provide a benefit for those people who have served us and their families that is the equivalent of a GI Bill, that gives them the boost, the shot in the arm that allows you to afford child care," added Houlahan, a retired Air Force captain.

Military spouse unemployment has remained stubbornly high over the last decade despite years of efforts by the federal government to incentivize employers and even as the overall U.S. unemployment rate reaches new lows following the economy's post-pandemic rebound.

The Defense Department's most recent spouse survey, from 2021, found spouse unemployment has hovered around 21% since 2015. By contrast, the overall unemployment rate in the U.S. was 3.9% in February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Meanwhile, affordability of child care has also continued to be an issue even as the Pentagon has sought to reduce costs. Earlier this year, the Defense Department announced it was restructuring the costs of its on-base, child-care centers so that lower-income families pay less and higher-income families pay more in an effort to make the price of child care more equitable.

Access to on-base child care has also been an issue, with long waitlists exacerbated by staffing shortages locking parents out of that option. But the cost of civilian child care is often out of reach for service members, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Houlahan raised the idea of the "GI Bill for child care" during meetings with the quality-of-life panel she co-leads with Chairman Don Bacon, R-Neb., and her office said they are hopeful parts of it could be included in the panel's final report and recommendations.

But her office also described the proposal as more of a personal project than an official undertaking of the quality-of-life panel and said she would pursue it as a standalone bill if it does not get included in the panel's recommendations.

Much like the GI Bill covers a veteran's education by sending payments directly to their school, Houlahan's proposal would send the grant money directly to child-care centers. That would allow the child-care providers to plan for the staffing they need while also ensuring military families don't have to pay up-front and rely on being reimbursed later, her office said.

While the proposal is being branded as similar to the GI Bill, Houlahan's office stressed that it would not involve amending the law that provides the GI Bill benefit to veterans.

Houlahan's proposal would start as a pilot program with the exact locations to be determined in collaboration with the Defense Department and other key players, according to the fact sheet. Those running the program would also work to identify child-care providers that have the capacity to accommodate more families.

The fact sheet identifies one company, Higher Ground Education, that has committed to increasing its capacity to participate in the program. The company operates a nationwide network of early childhood centers and schools that follow the Montessori model of education.

Military families nonprofit Blue Star Families would be involved in oversight of the pilot program, including studying its effects on spouse employment and overall family financial well-being, according to the fact sheet.

For Houlahan, the issue of child-care affordability in the military is personal. One of the reasons she said she left active duty in 1991 was because she and her husband couldn't afford child care.

"I hope it has legs," she said of the proposal. "I think it's something that people can kind of sink their mind into."

Related: Tax-Free Pay, 2-Year Leave of Absence for Parents Among Ideas Being Floated by House's Military Quality-of-Life Panel

Story Continues