July/August 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 6

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Sociologists Join Forces with the White House to Support Military Families

Mary K. Kniskern, University of Maryland

When Barack Obama was campaigning for the presidency, Michelle Obama traveled around the country with him, speaking to Americans about issues facing their families. While most of what she heard was familiar to her, she discovered one group of American families with which she had no prior experience: military families. She found that military spouses face unique challenges: frequent relocations, which make continuous employment difficult; frequent and long deployments, which result in family separations; and the risk of physical or psychological injury or death to the service member, which may turn young family members into caregivers or single-parent households. She pledged that if her husband were elected president, she would become a voice and an advocate for military families. Thus, even before her husband won the 2008 presidential election, First Lady Michelle Obama made the well-being of military families a priority.

After the inauguration, Obama’s first trip as First Lady was to visit the families of service members stationed at Fort Bragg, NC. She found a kindred spirit in the Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden, who had experienced the stress of being a military mother when her stepson, Beau Biden, attorney general of Delaware and a member of the Delaware Army National Guard, was mobilized and deployed to Iraq for a year. Obama and Biden began to develop a team to support them in their efforts regarding military families. The Obamas and Bidens have committed to coordinating government and civilian resources to support service members and their families, who are the one percent of Americans who bear the burden of the nation’s  international security commitments.

Last year, the Office of the First Lady asked sociologists at the University of Maryland-College Park to team with the U.S. Department of Defense and the Treasury Department to confront issues of military family economic well-being, specifically military spouse employment. The welfare of military families has been one foci of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland for almost four decades. The Center with graduate and research programs in military sociology as well as gender, work, and family, coupled with the university’s location inside the Washington beltway, made the University of Maryland a natural academic partner for this project.

Teaming Up With Sociology

Building on research by former University of Maryland graduate students Bradford Booth (PhD, 2000) on the employment of women, particularly military wives, in monopsonistic military-dominated labor markets, and Richard T. Cooney, Jr., (PhD, 2003) on the impact of tied migration on the employment of military spouses, doctoral student Mary Kniskern and Professor David R. Segal prepared a report for the Office of the First Lady. Using data from the American Community Survey conducted by the Census Bureau, the report looks at unemployment, underemployment, and returns to human capital investments among military wives compared to their civilian counterparts. Mady W. Segal, whose work on the military and the family as a greedy institutions, provides a foundation for much of the social science research on military families. Although a Professor Emerita since 2010, she agreed to work on the First Lady’s project. Recognizing the importance of place, other research underway at Maryland in support of this project deals with the geographic distribution of employment problems for military spouses and the concentration of military spouses in occupations involving state certification and licensure, which requires them to start afresh when military service involves out-of-state moves.

Strengthening Military Families

In January, President Obama broadened federal responsibility for military personnel and their families from the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to the entire executive branch, with the publication of Strengthening our Military Families: Meeting America’s Commitment. The report contained 50 commitments by federal agencies to establish a comprehensive and coordinated approach to support military families, and it was signed by all members of the Cabinet. The commitment to address military spouse employment issues cited the Maryland research. See www.defense.gov/home/features/2011/0111_initiative/strengthening_our_military_january_2011.pdf.

With the viewpoint that the military is woven into the fabric of society rather than isolated from it, in February, Mrs. Obama, at a White House meeting of the National Governors Association, announced a campaign to go beyond the federal government and rally citizens, businesses, and nonprofit organizations to support military families. On April 12, David and Mady Segal were invited by Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden to join them, the President and Vice President, military family members, members of the Cabinet, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their wives, members of Congress, and senior officials from federal agencies, commerce and industry, foundations, and nonprofit organizations, in the East Room of the White House for the inauguration of the new initiative: "Joining Forces." For a description of this program, see www.whitehouse.gov/joiningforces.

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