The Military Spouse Entrepreneurship Act Will Strengthen America’s Military Readiness
July 24, 2023
On June 14th, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) introduced legislation that will significantly enhance U.S. military readiness. The legislation does not amend U.S. military posture, expand recruitment by the services branches, or authorize a new weapon system. Instead, the Military Spouse Entrepreneurship Act addresses, at long last, the unique economic challenges and needs of military spouses – 92 percent of whom are women – who have been taken for granted and overlooked for too long. In doing so, the legislation will dramatically improve military spouse satisfaction and, therefore, active service member retention – and retention, more than ever, is critical to military readiness.
The Act should be passed swiftly, either as a free-standing bill or as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
Military spouses make an incalculable contribution to the nation by bearing a unique and heavy burden – a burden that extends far beyond long separations, single parenting, and simmering anxiety for the well-being of their deployed spouse. According to the Department of Defense, each year a third of all military personnel change duty stations, meaning that most military families endure a move every two to four years.
On the one hand, the nomadic aspect of military life has its appeal – another part of the country or world to explore, new friends to meet, exciting new experiences and opportunities. But frequent moves also mean interrupted relationships, social uncertainty or isolation, kids pulled out of schools and away from friends, anxiety and re-adjustment.
Perhaps most problematic, change of duty stations makes holding a job or pursuing a career that matches the education and qualifications of military spouses difficult or even impossible. The result is staggering unemployment and underemployment. Surveys of military families reveal that nearly a quarter of military spouses are unemployed and as many as 60 percent experience underemployment – more than seven times the national average.
The ramifications of high military spouse unemployment are severe. Most obviously, under- or unemployment threatens financial security. In 2018, Blue Star Families’ annual survey of military families reported “financial issues/stress” as the top source of military family anxiety – ranking even higher than spousal separation. In the same survey, 70 percent of millennial respondents indicated that two incomes are now vital to the family’s well-being.
More fundamentally, under- and unemployment – particularly over long periods – can lead to feelings of unfulfillment, frustration, and resentment among military spouses unable to pursue their own professional goals. And the risk of such problems is high, given that 80 percent of military spouses are younger than 40, and 45 percent hold a bachelor’s or advanced degree compared to just 33 percent among the U.S. population overall. Career-related unhappiness, in turn, undermines spouses’ satisfaction with the military lifestyle despite profound pride in serving the nation and participating in the military’s mission.
Family finances and the military spouse experience – and their impact on military marriages and families – often determine whether a service member stays in or leaves the military. This is especially true when spouses and service members reach mid-career and begin the period of maximum earning potential.
And, ultimately, retention determines military readiness. New service members can always be trained, but training cannot re-supply experience and professional maturity among military ranks. This reality is especially urgent given the increasing technological sophistication of modern warfare and the associated education, skill, and experience requirements of military personnel. At a time when the military is seeking to raise retention rates to make up for recruiting shortfalls, the relationship between spousal satisfaction and retention is especially critical. To retain its most skilled and seasoned service members, the nation’s armed forces must find ways to ensure that military spouses can enjoy meaningful careers.
Fortunately, a powerful solution exists, a pathway that offers economic empowerment, financial remuneration, and on terms consistent with the unique needs of military spouses – entrepreneurship.
Launching a business – especially an Internet-based or remote-work business not bound to a particular geographic or brick-and-mortar location – offers a unique professional experience that can be pursued without interruption from anywhere in the world. In addition to potential financial success, entrepreneurship provides a pathway to personal and professional fulfillment, the chance to pursue a long-time interest or idea, to create, to build something new from scratch, to become one’s own boss and potentially an employer of others. In its inherent flexibility and self-autonomy, entrepreneurship is tailor-made for military spouses.
But entrepreneurship is also risky and fraught with challenges. Research has shown that a third of all startups fail by their second anniversary, half by their fifth. And to have the best chance of survival, entrepreneurs – especially first-time entrepreneurs – need help. They need to learn basic business skills, accounting, licensing and regulatory requirements, how to think through and perfect a product or service idea, how to identify and successfully pursue potential customers, how to secure the capital they need, and how (in the world!) to navigate the tax code. For military spouses managing young families, extended separation from serving spouses, and the challenges of frequent duty station changes, the challenges are all the more daunting.
The Senators’ bill does three important things. First, it recognizes military spouses as a distinct group with unique challenges and needs. Too often in the past, military spouses have been lumped in by policymakers with their active-duty spouses or with veterans – they are neither.
Second, the bill directs the Administrator of the Small Business Administration to establish a program to assist military spouses in establishing, operating, and growing small businesses. The program would include business skill training, mentoring opportunities, and other support.
Third, the bill directs the Administrator to conduct a survey at select military installations to identify barriers to forming, operating, and growing small business experienced by military spouses, and to submit an analysis of the survey findings to the House and Senate Small Business Committees within 180 days.
Military spouses make profound sacrifices that a grateful nation can never fully repay. Acknowledging their unique economic needs and providing the business training and support they have earned and deserve is a great start – especially given the importance of their personal satisfaction and economic well-being to the nation’s military readiness.