Military Life in San Diego: An Up Close Look

Our region is home to the largest concentration of military personnel — and their children — in the country. And while San Diego is a proud military town, our active and transitioning service members, veterans, and their families face challenges that can be difficult to unpack from an outsider’s perspective. In April, Catalyst’s Do the Work series will take funders through a unique military immersion experience, providing opportunities to hear directly from military leaders and families on crucial topics including wellness, mental health, early childhood development, and the need for family services.

Here are just a few numbers breaking down San Diego’s military-connected community and its integral role in the social and economic fabric of our region: With installations at Camp Pendleton, Miramar, Point Loma, Coronado, and the City of San Diego, the Department of Defense (DoD) employs over 110,000 active-duty service members across the Navy, Marine Corps, U.S. Coast Guard, and other DoD organizations. About 16,000 service members separate from active-duty service in San Diego each year, with nearly a third of them remaining in Southern California. And in economic terms, direct defense spending in greater San Diego combined with ancillary development translated to a total economic impact of $55.2 billion in 2021, an estimated 25 percent of the San Diego Gross Regional Product (GRP).

Yet despite the strong economic and institutional presence of the military in our region, active and transitioning service members, veterans, and their families face complex challenges that tend to blur the lines between military careers and broader family and community life. They contend with a variety of stressors impacting their physical and mental well-being — a lack of social connections and supports, a shortage of affordable housing, and food insecurity/lack of access to nutritional food, to name just a few. And while there are several hundred military and veteran support organizations across San Diego County, it can be difficult to navigate the local social services ecosystem and find relevant support for specific needs.

Insufficient infrastructure and funding to scale services appropriately also contribute to growing inequities for our military-connected community. As shared by San Diego Armed Services YMCA Executive Director Tim Ney at Catalyst’s 2021 Conference: ALL IN, access to affordable childcare is one of the most significant challenges for military families. While there are subsidized military Child Development Centers (CDCs) specifically serving military families, space at these centers comes at a premium. Wait lists are long — in San Diego County more than 4,000 children in Navy families alone are currently waitlisted. There are additional layers of difficulties for families to access CDCs if they are further down the ladder in terms of rank, and even with fee assistance programs, enlisted families typically don’t earn enough to afford childcare in San Diego’s civilian world. This lack of affordable childcare in turn prevents many military spouses (85 percent of which are women) from entering or fully participating in the workforce.

To tackle these complexities, we need to define a clearer role for philanthropy as well as opportunities for greater synergy with public and private dollars. We need to explore opportunities for funders of all kinds to deepen partnerships with the nonprofit sector, military, elected officials, civic leaders, and the business community. Join us on April 27th for Do the Work: Military Families, as we consider independent and collective strategies to enhance our region’s support system for those who chose to serve.