On June 22, 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill of Rights. Barring Social Security, it was the most successful social program in American history. It set the stage for the long economic boom of the ‘50s and ‘60s and the rapid ascendancy of the middle class by forestalling an immediate post-War crisis, fueling an unprecedented housing boom, and by providing American industry and government with a highly educated workforce. Getting that result was not easy.
In 1944 the end of World War II was in sight even if more than a year of bloody conflict still lay ahead. That of course was good news. But it also kept a lot of folks up with night sweats. What would happen when the largest mobilization in history—millions of armed service members, mostly men—came to an end. Battle hardened veterans would be dumped into an economy that would be naturally rapidly contracting as the war production boom wound down. Men with no skills beyond aiming an M-1 or swabbing a deck would be thrown into competition for scarce jobs with workers who had mastered all sorts of production skills in the defense plants. Everyone expected a post-war recession; it was just a matter of how severe. Some fretted it could relapse into the Depression that only really ended when war production began to ramp up in 1939.
Similar conditions had led to the rise of fascism and Communism in Europe after World War I and huge domestic turmoil in the US that included mass strike waves, race riots, and the great Red Scare crackdown that threatened basic Constitutional and Civil Rights.
Meanwhile the demobilizing troops—draftees and volunteers alike had been vaguely promised that their years of sacrifice would be honored and rewarded and that they would somehow be “taken care of.” Conservatives in Congress were already making noises against “undeserved giveaways” and expenditures that would get in the way of deep cuts to high wartime taxes on the wealthy.
The specter of the Bonus March, which was violently suppressed by the Army under Douglas MacArthur, and possible post war chaos or rebellion haunted the lawmakers who worked on the GI Bill.
The historic models were not good. After the Civil War a stingy Congress was parsimonious in handing out pensions and even the politically powerful Grand Army of the Republic was frustrated with trying to loosen Congressional purse strings as their membership aged. As a result, many veterans joined the labor movement during the decades of open class war of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. They burned down rail yards during the Great Railway Strike of 1877 and were the backbone of Coxey’s Army when it marched on Washington in 1894.
After the Great War Congress sought to buy time by promising a Bonus payment to Veterans in 1945. But when the Great Depression hit sending unemployment soaring thousands joined the Bonus March on Washington that the Hoover administration was terrified signaled a revolution. The Bonus March was brutally dispersed by the Army under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. No one wanted a replay of that, either.
In the White House President Roosevelt and his New Deal holdover staff began to put together a relatively modest package of benefits fearing Congressional Republican united opposition. The bill Roosevelt proposed would have been means tested—only poor veterans would be eligible for most of the benefits and education grants for four years of college would only go to those who got top scores on a written test.
The leaders of the two most powerful veteran’s organizations, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) with millions of members, plenty of political clout, and the prospect of enrolling waves of new GIs had other ideas. Harry W. Colmery, a liberal Democrat and a former National Commander of the American Legion—yes, children, such persons once existed—sketched an early draft proposal for a bill at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. The then current Commander Warren Atherton, a Republican lawyer, helped with the final drafts.
With the backing of both Veterans organizations, he quickly gained the support of Sen. Ernest McFarland (D-Ariz.) as the principal sponsor in the Upper Chamber. He got some bi-partisan support, especially Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts who was the Republican Chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. The bill was introduced in January 1944 and despite being sweepingly more generous gained the support of the President. With the Legion and VFW pulling out all stops on pressuring Congress and the hastily organized support of GI families, especially their wives, the Bill rushed through Congress and was adopted by a comfortable margin in the Democratic Senate and the Republican held House. Only the most curmudgeonly of conservatives groused, and they did so discretely.
An Army Paratrooper poses with a poster promoting the new GI Bill.
The main provisions of the GI Bill which would reshape American society were:
· Dedicated payments of tuition and living expenses to attend high school, college or vocational/technical school.
· Low-cost home mortgages.
· Low-interest loans to start a business.
· 52 weeks of unemployment compensation.
To be eligible a veteran must have been on active duty during the war years for at least 90 days and had not been dishonorably discharged. Combat was not a requirement. All veterans including women and minorities—the most controversial component of the legislation—were eligible.
The most glaring omission was those who served in the Merchant Marine, although they had been considered military personnel in times of war in under the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. This even though Merchant Marine suffered higher losses in combat by percentage than any of the recognized Armed Services. At the signing ceremony Roosevelt urged Congress to act to rectify the omission. They never did.
Although Blacks and other minorities were technically eligible for full benefits, custom, political expediency, and Federal timidity conspired to deny many their rights under the program. Just as many New Deal programs had done before, administration of the benefits were left to local, White officials and a tacit policy of “deferring to local custom” many Blacks were shut out, especially but not exclusively in the Jim Crow South. Many of those not directly turned down were discouraged from applying and many were never informed of their rights by the outreach programs of the Veterans’ Administration and the Veterans’ organizations. Most affected was the home loan program because there was no requirement for banks to serve Black borrowers or developers to sell to them. Of the first 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill, fewer than 100 were taken out by non-whites, virtually universal exclusion.A Black NCO explains GI benefits to his unit of truck drivers. In reality most Blacks found it difficult or impossible to fully claim their benefits due to custom, Jim Crow laws, and openly bigoted local administrators. Being locked out would have devastating, multi-generational consequences.
Vital education benefits were also impacted. Most Colleges and Universities still excluded Blacks or admitted them only in small numbers under strict quota systems. That shunted most potential student off to trade schools, including many fly-by-night operations set up just to harvest GI Bill benefits or to the limited number of historically black colleges which were quickly overwhelmed. And, once again, local officials found ways to dispute payments to those schools. Only one fifth of the 100,000 Blacks who had applied for educational benefits had registered in college by 1946 and the hard pressed Black schools had been forced to turn away 20,000 eligible vets for lack of space for them. And in most of the South, it was virtually impossible for Blacks to get their unemployment benefits under the program.
This has had a generational effect as previously poor or working class Whites were lifted into the Middle Class giving their children and grandchildren advantages not available to the offspring and descendants of Black vets. It is one of the most insidious and invisible elements of White privilege that the beneficiaries never even think about.
Despite these failures, the GI Bill was an enormous success for its favored beneficiaries and for the economy.The New American Dream--a house in the suburbs made possible for many by the GI Bill.
By 1956, roughly 8.8 million World War II veterans had used the education benefits including 2.2 million to attend colleges or universities and 5.6 million for some kind of training program. Millions more took advantage of GI Bill mortgage loans. One of those was my father, W.M. Murfin who in that very year used it to upgrade us from a slightly run down 1890 frame rental in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a three bedroom brick ranch in a new subdivision out by the airport.
Many more would continue to use the benefits for decades to come.
Here are some of the results of the GI Bill.
At the time it was enacted many supporters felt that the most critical component was the guaranteed one year of unemployment benefits which paid $20 weekly. That was hardly a princely sum and difficult for a person supporting a family to get by on. But it was a very livable payment for singles providing a modest standard of living. But it turned out that fewer veterans took advantage of this than anticipated or who took advantage of education benefits. Less than 20 % of the money set aside for the program was used.A disillusioned Vet played by Frank Sinatra paid for his carousing with his GI Bill unemployment benefits in Some Came Running with Dean Martin, a film based on an autobiographical novel by James Jones.
The biggest beneficiaries of the unemployment benefits were those who had the hardest time adjusting to civilian life including those who we now recognize suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Many of them had trouble reconnecting with family and could not establish stable relationships like the millions of vets who rushed into marriage after the war. They were rootless. Think of the lead character in James Jones’s novel Some Came Running who was played by Frank Sinatra in the movie. It is never explicitly stated but understood that the troubled Vet who returns to his hometown pays for his lodgings and carousing with his unemployment benefits.
Some Vets purposely took the year to unwind and find themselves gravitating to places like New York’s Greenwich Village, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Among them were several who became leading figures in Beat movement and the post-war art and theater scenes. Thus, those government checks had profound cultural impact.
But the limited use of unemployment benefits was because the post-war recession was not as deep or long as many had feared. Pent up demand for automobiles, durable goods, and housing all fueled a rapid recovery and ushered in an unprecedented boom period. Millions of women left the workforce voluntarily or involuntarily opening jobs and the huge numbers of vets who took advantage of educational benefits which delayed their entry into the job market for years by which time the economy was roaring again.
Before the War, most Americans who did not live in rural areas and small towns, did not live in single family homes, especially the working class and urban poor—a population that had been swollen by the depression. Most lived in apartments, flats, and tenements. Truly astonishing numbers, including whole families, lived in boarding houses, other rooming houses, and in residential hotels. The GI Bill, and to some extent FHA Loans, changed that with astonishing speed. Vets were offered low interest, zero down payment home loans from established banks backed by Federal guarantees and insurance. Terms of the loans favored new construction over the purchase of existing housing stock, a nod at stimulating the construction industry.
The reality--Levittown, New York in 1947 and the birth of suburban sprawl and '50's car culture.
GIs and their families poured out of old central cities and into sprawling suburban developments symbolized by Levittown. Old established neighborhoods were disrupted and broken up. Blacks, more recent immigrants, and poor whites took over those areas. And the coming of Blacks stoked white flight to the suburbs by those who had been left behind.
The resulting sprawl also contributed to the growing auto centered culture—roads, highways, parking lots, shopping centers, drive-in everything with all the attending pollution and other effects for good and ill.
The new suburban life-style suddenly enshrined the nuclear family—dad, stay-at-home mom, and children as the cultural norm. Before the war many lived together in extended, multi-generational families. Despite the relatively recent origin of this norm, contemporary conservatives and reactionaries consider it both a time honored tradition and actually anointed by God even as shifting culture and a new harsh economic reality have rendered it nearly obsolete.
But many argue it was the education benefits that had the farthest reaching consequences. The many college graduates produced, mostly as admirers of the “Greatest Generation” are eager to point out, motivated, driven, and focused entered the job market in time to provide the engineers, scientists, and other innovators that contributed to one revolution after another in technology, transportation, communication, and production. On their shoulders America became the undisputed economic master of a shattered world.
Students, many of the Vets on the GI Bill and all of them white, line up for registration at the University of Minnesota.
They also filled the ranks of what in retrospect might be called the Age of Middle Management in the giant corporations that came to dominate the post war era and government at all levels. The sons of shoemakers, sharecroppers, and factory hands became junior executives and vice presidents. Some went even further. It was a white collar revolution that raised millions into the middle class and firmly set expectations of achievement for the Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and subsequent generations that followed them.
But in the Digital Age, with globalization, and the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse most of those jobs disappeared as surely as did those of coal miners and rust belt factory workers. Yet the myth that a college education is an automatic ticket to the middle class and success lingers. The grandchildren and great grandchildren of those returning Vets are now graduating from college saddled with enormous debt and dim job prospects for many. We have entered the age of Uber drivers with master’s degrees, retail clerks and low level managers with BAs, and thirty-year-old waitresses still hustling tables at Chili’s. Many can’t launch independent lives and society is getting used to the return of multi-generation homes as under-employed alums linger in or return to their parents’ houses.
Although the versions of the GI Bill have remained in force, veterans of subsequent conflicts did not get the same comprehensive boost as did the World War II vets. Troops returning from Korea found that instead of their institutions receiving payment for tuition and fees, they were given a flat amount regardless of cost of their education to apply to their expanses. That figure—about $150 a month usually failed to pay all expanses and was reduced in value over the years by education inflation which ran ahead of the general cost of living.Rep. Gillespie "Sonny" Montgomery, U.S. Army Major General, Retired, and his proudest accomplishment --the Montgomery GI Bill.
In 1984 the revised Montgomery GI Bill — Active Duty (MGIB) sponsored by Rep. Gillespie V. “Sonny” Montgomery, corrected and raised benefits but extended the time of active service required and put in place a 10 year window to use them after leaving the service. Once again inflation ate up the increased monthly payments despite occasional boosts. The Montgomery Bill remains the underlying law regarding these veterans’ benefits.
In 2010 Congress after much delay passed President Barak Obama’s tweak of benefits, the Post-9/11 GI Bill a/k/a GI Bill 2.0 which among other thing expanded the eligibility of members of the National Guard or Reserves called up for active duty—troops that the Armed Services heavily relied on in the Gulf War, Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq as well as other anti-terrorist actions. Education benefits were redefined with a new cap and there was additional minor tinkering.
President George W. Bush opposed expansion of GI Bill benefited for fear that it would encourage soldiers to leave the service rather than doing multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. His veto was over riden. Barack Obama secured improved benefits in the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
Under heavy pressure in Congress guarantees were written into the law for payment to private, for profit trade schools, and an explosion of iffy on-line diploma mills despite the administration’s desire to rein in the worst offenders who saddled vets with courses most never completed and/or worthless degrees and training certificates not recognized by businesses or legitimate educational institutions. In 2012, Obama issued an Executive Order to ensure that military service members, veterans, and their families would not be aggressively targeted by sub-prime colleges. These regulations caused the failure of heavily advertized ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges which abruptly ceased operations after the Obama administration slapped them with federal sanctions. Many more were in danger of going out of business.
Donald Trump countermanded Obama’s Executive Order with one of his own that unleashed the controversial schools to resume preying on veterans and their families. Trump, of course, famously lent his name to sham school, Trump University, which bilked vets and others and is still under criminal investigation.
Trouble with private schools date back to the beginning of the program. Although many World War II vets received legitimate technical and trade training, many others were snagged in phony correspondence school scams. These bad actors have been a constant plague on the program over the years routinely using clout to beat back attempts at reform.
Interestingly, a higher percentage of Vietnam Veterans—72%—used GI Bill compared to 51% of World War II vets and 43% of Korean alumni. But a large percentage of them used the benefits at questionable trade and technical schools.
ITT was one of many for profit schools that trolled for active duty troops and veterans. The heavily advertised school with campuses around the country and on-line programs went belly-up when its life blood was cut off for exploiting its students.
The advent of the Internet allowed on-line college programs to enter the fray alongside the traditional training schools. Some on-line programs by recognized colleges and universities were legitimate and hailed by many as the wave of the future especially for those already in the workforce or with family responsibilities seeking re-education or career upgrades. Unfortunately many of the for profit schools that sprang up preying on Veterans were virtually useless.
Today each of the armed services has their own regulations interpreting the terms and eligibility of GI Bill and other veterans’ benefits. Many of those regulations, like those requiring set minimums of time in continuing deployment abroad have caused many troops and vets not to get the full education benefits that they thought they were entitled to when they enlisted in the “all-volunteer” armed forces. Many are told that they will have to re-enlist or volunteer for additional deployments in order to get what their initial recruiters promised.Vets make up a large percentage of the homeless on the streets of San Francisco and other cities with soaring housing costs.
Along with other cuts to Veterans’ services, a general deterioration of the Veteran’s medical care, and high rates of PSTD, post-9/11 vets suffering extended unemployment and homelessness are on a sharp rise. Continuing steep rises in housing costs have exacerbated the growing homeless population.
Most don’t even know what a boost their World War II predecessors received under the original GI Bill.