Opinion

The 'spouse tax' on military wives

The military is not built to suit a two-income family

By

The US Army recently announced that it would pay captains up to $35,000 in retention bonuses to stem the tide of junior officers leaving the Army, in part because of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bonuses may temporarily retain a few captains, but the problem will continue well into the future unless policymakers address a more fundamental issue: A military lifestyle makes the pursuit of a career nearly untenable for military wives.

I know the challenges that Army wives face. I've been a lawyer and an Army wife for 10 years. In that period, I've moved seven times. I've taken four different bar exams and held five different jobs. My income has been taxed in at least five states. My children have had five different nannies. I think it's safe to say that military wives like me face career obstacles that few civilian wives could appreciate.

Over half of all military wives work. Unfortunately, the military structure is not built to accommodate a two-income family. The result is what has been dubbed the "spouse tax." Little can be done to alleviate frequent relocations and long deployments. But working military wives also face a multitude of overlooked and unnecessary obstacles.

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Wives attending college when their service members transfer must choose between paying exorbitant out-of-state tuition if they stay behind or losing a substantial number of credits if they move. Although many smaller and online universities admirably volunteer to accept transferred credits for military wives, not many of the country's larger public universities and almost none of the top-tier private schools do.

Working wives face long waiting lists for child care and a lack of well-paying jobs. If they find well-paying jobs, their income is taxed unfairly at the state and local level. Entrepreneurial wives must adapt to different state and local laws with each move. In some cases, they must dissolve and reincorporate their businesses (and pay the requisite fees).

Professionally licensed wives such as teachers (yes, and lawyers) are hit hard. Most licensed professions are regulated by states. Therefore, wives must test for, and pay for, new licenses with each move. In many professions, spouses get no credit for experience in other states, yet they must continue to pay annual fees to each state in which they are licensed. The process gets prohibitively expensive, forcing spouses to either pay hundreds of dollars per year to maintain licenses in multiple states (which is desirable, since the family may eventually be assigned back to that state) or relinquish the licenses they worked so hard to obtain. Preparation for licensure exams can cost thousands of dollars, but because many military families don't own homes and therefore don't itemize deductions on their tax returns, they get no money back for their efforts. As a result, families that would be upwardly mobile are repeatedly handicapped.

The result? Unemployment among military wives is nearly four times the national average. There is a $12,000 wage gap between college-educated civilian and military wives. A military wife with a postgraduate degree has 20 percent less chance of finding full-time employment than a civilian wife.

A few targeted efforts by the federal government would make a great difference. Lawmakers should pursue regulatory and licensure exemptions and tax incentives to ease the burden on entrepreneurial and working wives, or, better yet, exempt military families from local and state taxes; improve child-care options for military families; allow family members to pay in-state tuition, regardless of the service member's duty station; require public universities to accept more transferred credits from spouses who choose to move with their service members; and allocate more positions on military installations to spouses so that they can pursue careers wherever they are stationed. Simply allowing spouses to claim a permanent state of residence, as members of the military currently do, would alleviate some of the bureaucratic hassles of frequent moves.

There is no doubt that Americans, liberal and conservative alike, place a high value on the service that the military provides. American policy should reflect this and modernize, removing the barriers placed between military families and a higher quality of life. Allowing military families to achieve financial security in parity with civilian families would increase recruitment and retention of high-quality service members. The benefits would extend to the entire military and, ultimately, the country. This is preferable to a short-term fix that does not address key issues underlying retention.

Laura Dempsey is a civil rights lawyer and a political consultant. She lives at Fort Drum, N.Y. © 2008 The Washington Post.

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