By Linda J. Bilmes and Joseph E. Stiglitz

One of the sharpest distinctions between the Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls is their stand on increasing educational benefits for veterans. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton support new legislation that would boost college benefits to levels comparable with the original GI Bill of Rights, enacted more than 60 years ago. They argue that our troops deserve this investment and that the cost – at $3-4 billion annually – is less than the US spends on combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in a single week.

The original GI Bill enabled 8 million returning World War II veterans to afford an education. The law was simple and democratic: all troops who had served for at least 90 days and received an honorable discharge were eligible. The benefits paid for tuition, lab fees, books, vocational training, housing and a living stipend. Dependents of servicemen killed in action could also qualify. Historians have written about how the bill “reinvented” America after the war – making it possible to cope with the flood of demobilized young men who would otherwise have been desperately looking for work. The bill had far-reaching implications for the country: the number of people earning college degrees tripled; private elitist colleges and universities were forced to open their doors to minorities, Catholics and Jews, and American higher education became a gateway to the professions for the whole population instead of just a finishing school for the upper classes. In the 11 years following the passage of the bill, the GI bill had produced 450,000 engineers, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 25,000 dentists and a multitude of other professionals.

The GI bill also provided a big shot in the arm for the US economy. A study by the congressional Joint Economic Committee in 1988 calculated that the US economy grew by $7 for every $1 invested in veterans’ education. This “multiplier” boosted the economy nationwide: educational institutions all over the country expanded, built new dormitories, classrooms and housing for students. Newly educated GIs bought homes (using GI bill housing loans) which laid the groundwork for turning the US into a home owning society.

Veterans who served in Korea and Vietnam were also entitled to decent educational benefits. But the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan today get a very raw deal. The soaring cost of education combined with a watering down of the benefits means that current veterans cannot even cover tuition fees at state colleges, let alone books and general living costs. The maximum education benefit today is supposed to cover 70% of tuition at a state institution. In practice the system has so many obstacles that most veterans cannot even obtain this. Each serviceman or woman has to pay a $1200- $1800 nonrefundable contribution when they join the military. But 30% never use any of the benefits – so the government pockets $230 million from enlistees without providing anything in return. Second, National Guards and Reservists – despite having contributed one-quarter of the fighting force in Iraq and Afghanistan – are not eligible for many of the benefits. Third, the application process is protracted and bureaucratic: more than 118,000 veterans are waiting for their education claims to be processed by VA.

The bill before Congress would cover full tuition and fees at state universities for those who have served at least 3 years, together with a modest cost-of-living allowance – essentially tripling the level of benefits. The bill would also insert some common-sense changes into the system, including allowing veterans to pay the opt-in fee over 2 years instead of one, and expanding eligibility for Guards and Reservists.

The proposal has attracted widespread bipartisan support. But Senator McCain has joined with the White House and the Pentagon to oppose the bill. Their main objection is that the measure is expensive, and would hurt our ability to retain experienced troops.

This argument – like many of our policies on Iraq — is completely myopic. We know that the number one reason young people sign up for the military is the educational benefits. The military is spending $20 billion this year on recruiting, yet even so it is obliged to accept 12% of new recruits with criminal records and 20% who lack a high school diploma in order to meet its recruiting goals. Boosting educational benefits would do more than any other single measure to increase the quantity and quality of military recruits – which is a prerequisite to retaining them in the long run.

Second, the revised GI Bill would help combat the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression among Iraq veterans. Already some 120,000 Iraq and Afghan veterans have been treated for mental illness including 68,000 suffering from PTSD. One of the best treatments is to offer a way of integrating troops back into society and education benefits are an effective way to achieve this. The $4 billion price tag is low in comparison to the cost of medical care and disability compensation that would otherwise be paid out each year to these veterans.

Third, a new GI bill is exactly the type of measure we need to combat a deepening economic recession. Unlike money spent in Iraq, money spent on veterans’ education benefits goes straight back into the US economy here at home. During the past 20 years, the gap between the earnings of the college educated and those without a high school education has widened substantially. This means that the economic return from providing education benefits will be even bigger than it was sixty years ago.

The money we spend on a new GI bill should be considered a cost of war. But unlike most of what we are spending, this amount will be repaid many times over.

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Linda Bilmes (whose father attended college on the GI Bill) and Joseph Stiglitz (winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics) are co-authors of “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict”.

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One Response to “Democrats Support New GI Bill, Bush and McCain Oppose it”

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