Pay for the Wives of U.S. Diplomats Overseas

The article by Terry W. Hartle and Edward Kutler (Editorial Pages, May 2), "Pay for Diplomats' Wives Would Open Floodgates," conjures up a fantasy instead of taking a clear look at the real world. The question under debate is how to make more productive use--at the 260 U.S. diplomatic posts abroad--of the education, training and relevant work experience that spouses of American personnel are qualified to provide.

The challenge is to construct a program that will use spouse skills effectively within the mission and in the furthering of U.S. interests in the host country. A well-designed program will be cost-effective, utilizing the resources that are on the spot. And it will help the Foreign Service to retain the personnel in whom it has invested invaluable years of training.

Contrary to the implication of Hartle and Kutler, taking all benefits into account, Foreign Service employees are no better paid than their counterparts in the United States. The same economic realities face them all: It takes two incomes for a family to make mortgage payments or to set aside funds for college tuition.

What does set the Foreign Service couple apart is the difficulty of providing a second income that is more than a patchwork of poorly paid and dead-end jobs. Many of the jobs at post are PIT positions--part-time, intermittent and temporary--that lead nowhere. Jobs in the local economy are limited or nonexistent since many countries do not permit the spouses of diplomats to work.

Dual Foreign Service careers are the answer for some, but "tandem couples" are individually available for worldwide service. And while the State Department tries to send these couples to the same post, the system is often strained even to assign them to the same region of the world.

The unique circumstances of Foreign Service life that vastly complicate jobs for spouses arise from the fact that over the 30-year span of a Foreign Service career, the employee is typically assigned to a succession of foreign posts, usually in two- or three-year stretches, living close to the local culture and functioning in the local language. These conditions cannot be equated with the disruption of a move from Pittsburgh to Pomona.

Tours abroad are punctuated by assignments in Washington where the couple plunge back into American life, only to find it difficult to pull up stakes when the time comes to go abroad again. Spouses are increasingly reluctant, sometimes flatly unwilling, to leave remunerative jobs and interesting career openings in the United States. Job/career prospects for their spouses--a small but growing number of whom are male--is the major concern expressed by incoming officers.

The problem of the relationship of spouses to the Foreign Service is growing. Along with the hazards of terrorism that increasingly impinge on life at our posts abroad, it poses a serious threat to the morale and functioning of the Foreign Service. Legislation passed by the Senate calls on the secretary of state to design a pilot project to find appropriate means of increasing spouse employment, using their education, training and relevant work experience within the mission and to further U.S. interests in the host country. It is clearly cost-effective and in the national interest to do so.


Washington, D.C.

Low is chairman of the Foreign Service Associates Study Group, Assn. of American Foreign Service Women.

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