The 1944 GI Bill, in its original form, rebuilt the American middle class. One in eight Americans served in World War II, and were thereby eligible for the benefits it extended. Its provisions allowed for veterans to attend any institution, public or private, regardless of cost, and subsidized loans to buy homes.
To say that the bill changed America would be an understatement; to say that it was the most important piece of legislation of the modern era might not be a stretch. An entire generation was privileged to top-tier educations and channeled the frustrations and horrors of war into degrees and careers, rather than being left to fledgling fights for remedial jobs. They were offered home ownership for cheaper than renting, and given stipends to live off as they pursued their degrees.
This month, the closest re-imagination of the momentous Servicemen's Readjustment Act goes into effect. It patches many of the seams of the stopover Montgomery GI bill, passed in 1984, and Sen. Jim Webb and others that championed the legislation are rightfully proud of its achievement, but it's damned to fall a good measure short of its grandfather's legacy.
I spoke with Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Humes earlier this week; he wrote "Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream."
"We're not even talking about the same kind of investment that the original GI Bill extended," he said. "We're still living off that prosperity now — waning though it is — that we generated with the original GI bill. We're still living off the infrastructure we created then by investing in educating a generation of engineers and scientists who made huge, tangible contributions to the economy — the aerospace industry, the computer industry, the electronics industry, all were jump-started by the original GI Bill."
Before this year's revisions, less than 1 percent of Americans were receiving the benefits outlined by the GI Bill; since 1985, only 8 percent of those eligible took advantage of education benefits according to a Defense Department study. The new bill takes important steps — previously, soldiers had to opt into the program, and pay the privileges forward with reduced salary in their first year. Many missed the proper guidelines and, upon leaving the services years later, learned that they had failed to qualify for the educational benefits. It also erases the gap between what reservists and national guardsmen who have served in battle receive as benefits as compared to active-duty counterparts.
"Serve your nation while earning money for college," has been a lynchpin of military recruitment for decades, but, as many that military found out, the promise didn't hold much water. That's changed now, but it hasn't changed enough to reconstruct America.
"No one likes to use the term, but the bipartisan GI Bill was rather socialistic in nature. It was social engineering, though it had a free enterprise spin. As Bill Clinton used to say, it was a hand up rather than a hand out," Humes says. "It clearly paid for itself many times over — every scholarly work that's measured the investment has concluded that. The hollow economy we have today resulted in part because we haven't continued to invest on that scale in educating subsequent generations of engineers and scientists and others who produce tangible things."
Right now we're on our way — slowly but surely — to a jobless economic recovery. Investments in green industries haven't produced the millions of jobs that many had hoped might emerge, and we shouldn't expect them to blossom for years.
As veteran suicide rates remain historically high, and getting and keeping jobs remains harder than at any point since the Great Depression, this bill is a much lauded and needed achievement. It's likely short of the massive investment in human capital — rather than failed banks or cracked asphalt — needed to carry America into the coming century, though.
Sometimes you have to spend money to make money; sometimes you have to spend money you don't have to rebuild a nation.
Brian Till, one of the nation's youngest syndicated columnists, is a research fellow for the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. He can be contacted at [email protected] To find out more about the author and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.