Today is Veteran's Day, an often overlooked holiday honoring American military veterans. Unfortunately, the relative obscurity of the holiday is a metaphor for the reduced support by our government for the millions of veterans who have served our country.
Today, there are nearly 22 million American military service veterans. About 44 percent are older than 65 and 2 million are under 35. The number of woman veterans has also been steadily increasing and now numbers over 2 million. The percentage of women veterans compared to men will be significantly increasing in the decades ahead.
As a result of our nation's decade long involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, three quarters of American veterans have now served in wartime. By 2016 the number of Gulf War Era veterans will surpass those who served during Vietnam. Yet government programs intended to support them have struggled to keep up with their needs.
Most Americans would be surprised at the large number of veterans who live in their neighborhoods and work in their offices. No doubt, civilians are highly respectful of veterans and are happy to applaud their service at sporting events and civic ceremonies. That's gratifying, but more needs to be done similar to past support for our veterans.
As World War II was nearing its end, President Roosevelt signed the Servicemen's Readjustment Act into law. Better known as the G.I. Bill, not only was it life changing for millions of veterans, it seriously boosted the U.S. economy. Veterans earned eligibly for up to four years of higher education funding and by 1947, veterans constituted 49 percent of U.S. college enrollment. Many more attended trade schools. At the same time, the G.I. Bill provided low interest, no down payment home loans which helped boost home building and dramatically increased housing options for the veterans.
Over time, through Korea and Vietnam, the G.I. Bill was amended to adjust to the needs of newer veterans. While the education benefit was reduced, unemployment insurance and job placement benefits were added. Importantly, President Johnson expanded the G.I. Bill benefits to include men and women who served during peacetime. The most recent changes to the G.I. Bill (the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill) grant housing and educational support to veterans with at least 90 days of service post 9/11, including National Guard service.
But as the number of younger veterans is increasing and the economy is still slowly recovering from the Great Recession, now would be an ideal time to revisit the G.I. Bill to boost not just veterans but the economy as well. Unfortunately, support for veterans is going in the opposite direction and its impact is being felt.
According to the September jobs numbers, while the U.S. unemployment rate was 7.2 percent, the rate for Post-9/11 veterans was a shocking 10.1 percent. This is no accident. Even as veterans continue to come home from serving abroad, the federal sequestration has had a devastating impact on them. Not only has educational support been cut back but so have programs the support homeless veterans and those in need of employment training, job grants and mental health support.
Corporate America has tried to fill some of this void. The Families and Work Institute honored several companies this year, including Johnson and Johnson, Verizon, Merck, JP Morgan Chase, and Citi, because of their "recruiting, hiring and training vets and giving them a path inside their organizations to sustain employment and create a bright future," Adm. Mike Mullen, USN (Ret.), former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a member of the Institute's board, said to NBC News.
That is not enough. The government can't shirk its responsibility to our veterans. At a time when our government needs to support those who have volunteered to protect our nation, we are doing a grave disservice to them.
As Congressional budget negotiators are now trying to reach agreement post government shutdown, they must focus on veterans. Of course, all will say nice things about them but actions are far more important than words. The sequestration budget cuts must be restored for veterans.
At the same time, budget negotiators should look back to their predecessors in Congress who passed the original G.I. Bill. Think of their leadership and apply it here. Help our economy recover more quickly by adding a housing component while fully restoring the education, job training and other benefits that are so sorely needed by our veterans.
They have served us. We owe them more than just a holiday.
Steven M. Fulop is Mayor of Jersey City and a former Marine who served in Iraq.