When Ronald Reagan convinced the nation that the nine most dangerous words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help, the Gipper knew better, even if his audience didn’t. Reagan was a member of the WW II generation and half his colleagues in Hollywood, from Newman to McQueen to Matthau, got their educations, training and first homes through the biggest of big government programs, the G.I. Bill.
Yet Reagan’s 1980s laugh line has become 21st century conventional wisdom, justification for slashing and spurning every government cause that doesn’t have pork on its label shortchanging even the veterans our current leadership claims to support.
Consider these two contrasting images to understand just how far we’ve sunk since June 1944, when Franklin Roosevelt signed the original G.I. Bill: After World War II, millions of veterans lined up for hours for a remarkable purpose: to register for free college educations, to buy homes with no money down and mortgages cheaper than rent, to sign up for vocational training and job counseling, and to apply for business and farm loans — all courtesy of Uncle Sam and the original G.I. Bill. In the wake of the Iraq war and occupation, very different but no less remarkable lines now snake across many military bases nationwide: bread lines.
This is the dirty secret in a war filled with them: Thousands of military families have been left so desperate they must queue up for donations of surplus cheese, day-old bread and damaged boxes of frozen food. This is especially true for bases in areas with high costs of living, such as the Marines’ Camp Pendleton near San Diego, where food lines have become a weekly fixture. When our warriors come home from Iraq, all too many find empty bank accounts, maxed-out credit cards and the realization that the college benefits used to entice enlistees won’t cover the costs of a 4-year degree, nor support their families while they’re in class. Still others, wounded in a war costing the country $10 million an hour, learn that their president and Congress have cut programs to heal their injuries, post-combat stress, and economic distress. "It is a scandal," says Paul Rieckhoff, director of the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America. "You can be sent to Rikers Island (New York’s jail), and you’ll get better transitional assistance when you get released than you do getting out of the Marines."
Sadly, this is not merely a story of slighted veterans, but of America’s dismal failure to invest in its future. Just imagine how a politician today would be pilloried if he proposed offering an entire generation free college, subsidized mortgages, job training and medical care. Why that would be a costly boondoggle, outright social engineering it would violate Reagan’s dictum that government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.
Today’s unthinkable was yesterday’s matter of course. In the midst of war, FDR and Congress overwhelmingly passed the bipartisan G.I. Bill to aid 16 million veterans 1 out of 8 Americans rebuild their lives. But this investment in America’s future powered far more than a return to the status quo. It transformed the nation and the American Dream. It opened up the colleges (formerly elite bastions), raised suburbs out of bean fields (a nation of renters became a nation of homeowners), grew the middle class (from 1 in 10 before the war to 1 in 3 a decade after), and provided the medical, engineering and scientific prowess to conquer dread diseases, usher in the information age, and win the Cold War.
Such luminaries as Bob Dole, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, William Rehnquist, Warren Christopher, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, and George McGovern, among many others, got their starts through the G.I. Bill, as did 14 Nobel Prize winners, two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 450,000 engineers and a million assorted lawyers, nurses, businessmen, artists, actors, writers and pilots. We seem to have forgotten that it was not unfettered free markets that transformed postwar America so much as a massive government program that intervened mightily in the housing, lending and education businesses, pushing (and subsidizing) them in ways they had long resisted spreading the wealth as never before. Or since.
Costly? Sure, but the G.I.Bill was truly a hand-up, not a hand-out. It more than paid for itself. A 1988 congressional study found that every dollar spent on education under the bill returned $7 through increased productivity, consumer spending and tax revenue. Fifty billion (in today’s dollars) earned a $350 billion return. Unlike the $450 billion and counting being flushed down the Iraq drain, the G.I. Bill left us safer, stronger, more united, and more prosperous. That’s called investing in the future — not for the next quarter, but the next quarter century.
The original GI Bill had sweeping power because it touched a whole generation. Today’s pale imitation reaches less than 1% of Americans. Decency and patriotism demand that it be strengthened, and our vets deserve every cent. But short of world war and a massive draft, it will never again be the same engine of opportunity. And America needs such an engine.
Before he died, FDR had a solution: national service. Young people would do good while earning education, medical, housing and pension benefits — not just veterans, but everyone, a civilian GI Bill. Polls suggested a receptive public, but the idea died with Roosevelt. Bill Clinton tried a modest resurrection with his AmeriCorps project. Much more is needed.
In an era when college is a growing financial burden for families, when home ownership grows less affordable each day, when we are losing our competitive edge in advanced degrees, and when the American Dream so generously nurtured after World War II is under siege, it is time again to expect greatness from our government our common enterprise, our commonwealth. It is time to realize Reagan’s old saw was not truism but self-fulfilling prophecy. Before he convinced us otherwise, our magnificent American government bested the Great Depression, created Social Security, won WW II, ended racial segregation, eradicated the scourges of polio and small pox, harnessed the atom, put a man on the moon, invented the internet, rebuilt war-ravaged Europe and Japan with the Marshall Plan, and raised America to new heights with the visionary G.I. Bill. Such is the legacy of greatness we inherited.
Now, for the first time in our history, polls show that Americans expect their children to inherit less prosperous lives than the current generation, a direct result of our embrace of those nine dangerous words. Is that really the legacy we want to leave behind?
EDWARD HUMES is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream (Harcourt 2006). He has contributed to Talk, the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, and others. Humes’s numerous other books include School of Dreams and the bestselling Mississippi Mud, Mean Justice, and No Matter How Loud I Shout. For more information, visit www.edwardhumes.com