A Drop in Military Readiness Shines a Light on the Importance of Early Childhood Care and Education

By: Rear Admiral Casey W. Coane, U.S Navy (Ret.) for Saporta Report

In 1942, the United States was confronted with a shocking statistic—out of the first two-million young men who were examined for military duty by the Selective Service board, roughly 900,000, were turned away. This alerted many to the unfortunate possibility that nearly 45 percent of young people in America were ineligible for military service. 

Fast forward to today, and the statistics have worsened. The Department of Defense (DoD) announced last November that the 2020 rate of military ineligibility for Americans aged 17 to 24 was 77 percent. That is higher than the 71 percent announced in 2017, and far higher than it was 80 years ago. This has many in the defense community worried that we are facing an unprecedented military recruitment crisis that could have dire consequences in the near future. 

Fortunately, we have a better understanding now than we did 80 years ago about what is causing this crisis. Most of the young people who are ineligible for service are unable to serve due to obesity, academic issues, a history of crime and drug use, or some combination of the three. 

To better understand how to help solve this issue, I joined Mission: Readiness, a membership organization of nearly 800 retired admirals and generals who recognize that the strength of our country depends in part on a military composed of educated, healthy young people. A solution we champion is one that the DoD already understands as vitally important for a functioning military—early childhood care and education, or ECE.

The Military Child Care System, or MCCS, is the country’s largest employer-sponsored early childhood education system. The MCCS employs over 23,000 child care providers and educators who care for roughly 200,000 children and is seen by many as a model for high-quality care. 

Unfortunately for Americans outside of the military, the civilian child care sector is not in such a position. For many, three barriers get in the way of accessing the ECE programs that their children need to build a strong foundation when they are young—access, affordability, and quality. 

Nearly two-thirds of children in Georgia under the age of six have all available parents in the workforce. This creates a high demand for ECE programs in our state, a demand we are currently unable to meet. 44 percent of Georgians live in a child care desert where there are more than three children under age five for every licensed child care slot. Availability is even worse for families who have infants and toddlers, have low incomes, work non-traditional hours, or live in rural areas. 

For those who are able to find child care slots for their children, the steep cost can keep them from accessing it. In Georgia, the average cost of center-based infant care is greater than the cost for in-state public college tuition. This leaves many families to struggle to pay for the care their children need. For example, a married couple with two children living in poverty would spend 63 percent of their annual income on child care, much higher than the seven percent deemed affordable by the Department of Health and Human Services. 

Families that are fortunate to find child care near them that is in their price range often face one last barrier, that of quality. Despite the high cost of child care, many ECE providers struggle to keep their doors open due to razor-thin operating margins. Those that are able to stay open have to deal with the current labor shortage and high turnover rate of ECE educators due to the low compensation that these jobs offer. These factors can cause an inconsistency in care that can result in a lower quality of education for the children in those programs. 

If young children, especially infants and toddlers, don’t have access to a stable environment and responsive caregivers, they can develop educational deficits, health issues, and behavioral problems later in life. This contributes to the military ineligibility problem, but, it isn’t just a problem for the military. This child care crisis has consequences that go beyond the military, touching the lives of employers in all sectors and impacting our economy.

In fact, earlier this year, Council for a Strong America (Mission: Readiness’ parent nonprofit) released updated research that found that the nation’s child care crisis, for infants and toddlers alone, is costing our economy $122 billion annually in lost productivity, earnings, and revenue. 

Fortunately, by combating one crisis we can combat both. We need state and federal lawmakers to invest in programs that expand the availability of quality, affordable ECE in Georgia. By investing in the next generation of Georgians, we can help better meet the needs of families, while bolstering our economy and shoring up our national security for years to come.