Diplomacy starts with domestic housing

Diplomacy starts with domestic housing
© Nicole Vas

If the United States is serious about leading with diplomacy, strengthening the State Department and diplomatic corps, and ensuring that the face of our nation abroad is more representative of our melting pot at home, it will require eliminating the disincentives to long-term training and to serving domestically for our nation’s diplomats.  

Some of my colleagues are driving for Uber after their day jobs, renting out their spare bedrooms to roommates and taking loans from their retirement funds simply to afford living in D.C. during their domestic assignments. The situation for my Foreign Service specialist colleagues, who typically earn less over the course of their careers than a generalist such as myself, can be even more acute. Our State Department Civil Service colleagues, often the issue experts and institutional continuity, face a similar set of challenges with the cost of living in Washington without the benefit of savings acquired from postings abroad.  

A majority of the domestic postings available to the Foreign Service are located at our headquarters in Foggy Bottom. While some of my colleagues engineer their careers to serve exclusively, or principally, overseas, it is increasingly rare. It is also considered paramount to one’s ability to effectively advance U.S. policy abroad to have experience in D.C., to understand how the mothership operates and navigates the broader Washington inter-agency milieu. 

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I would go further and advocate that every Foreign Service officer should spend a year or more in D.C. positions as a part of their initial onboarding. I’m confident I could have been a more effective entry-level officer overseas if I had first gained insight into the sausage-making in Washington. 

The reason so many of my peers and younger colleagues often angle to avoid a domestic assignment, however, is quite simply economic — and is getting worse. According to salary.com, the cost of living in D.C. is 56.1 percent higher than the national average. According to the National Association of Realtors, the median sales price of a single-family home in the Washington metro area is $417,400. That’s more expensive than both New York City ($403,900) and Philadelphia ($224,600). If my math checks out, an FS-03 Foreign Service officer (roughly equivalent to a major in the armed forces) would be left with $180 a month in total income after paying the average rent in D.C., daycare expenses, a 5 percent contribution to his or her “Thrift Savings Plan” retirement fund, insurance and taxes. That’s $180 … in the fifth most expensive city in the United States. If we want to recruit and retain the best diplomatic corps, it shouldn’t be unreasonable to expect that its members could afford an assignment in their own nation’s capital. 

I’ve spent a fulfilling 20 years serving our country in the Foreign Service. I’ve had unparalleled experiences. I am fortunate to serve in a “tandem” couple, with my wife a fellow diplomat. While presenting its own unique challenges, that has provided us with the economic cushion of a two-income household. 

Even with that cushion, it would have been nearly impossible for us to purchase a home in D.C. 14 years ago without family support. That luxury, I’m confident, contributes in some part to the makeup of the Foreign Service. People without that support are no less eager to own a home, so they opt for different careers in different places. I am currently paying $5,500 a month out of pocket for the educational “opportunity” to live in Palo Alto, Calif., and to be a National Security Affairs Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute. I have to wonder how many of my peers have passed on this opportunity simply because they didn’t want to make the financial sacrifice. My military colleagues in the same program receive more than $6,000 a month in housing stipend. 

That military stipend is evidence that the solution to the problem exists within our own federal government. While the majority of my Foreign Service colleagues don’t carry guns or fly fighter planes, they do serve abroad in dangerous places; they do put their lives at risk and suffer many of the same strains and stresses, often for longer periods of time, as our military colleagues who are deployed. I recently read that more U.S. ambassadors than U.S. military flag officers have died abroad since World War II. 

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That said, an 0-3 military captain – roughly equivalent in grade to an FS-04 Foreign Service officer, with an annual salary difference of about $4,000 – assigned to D.C., on top of the domestic cost-of-living allowance and childcare benefits (which the State Department does not offer), would receive $3,159 a month (i.e., the salary difference with the FS-04 is erased in just over a month) in base allowance for housing (BAH) compensation when assigned to the D.C. metropolitan area.  

Is it unreasonable to ask that a Foreign Service officer returning from three years abroad to work on foreign policy in Foggy Bottom be afforded the same benefit? 

Chase A. Beamer, a U.S. Foreign Service officer, is a national security affairs fellow at the Stanford University Hoover Institution. He has served in diplomatic posts in Africa, Europe and Latin America. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the State Department or the U.S. government.