For many Americans, earning a college degree and buying a house are considered milestones on the path toward a middle-class life. For Ted White, a licensed mental health therapist and proud homeowner, neither of those steps would have been easy, or perhaps even possible, without a career in the Army.
White, 37, grew up in a working class household in Nebraska. He took advantage of the GI bill and the Army College Fund to jumpstart his civilian career after serving in the military in Germany and California from 1994 through 1998. He also credits his military service for enabling him to buy a house in La Vista, Nebraska, where he lives today with his wife and two daughters.
“The VA home loan has helped a lot,” White told The Fiscal Times, referring to a program administered by the Veterans Administration that guarantees a portion of mortgages. “That’s probably one of the biggest benefits since getting out, after the college money.”
White followed a time-honored glide path from humble beginnings to the middle class by enlisting in the military. For generations dating back to World War II, the military has provided unique opportunities to young people to see the world and develop skills and talents that proved to be highly marketable when they left the service.
“Unquestionably the military – and particularly the Army – provided a pathway out of poverty and a hardscrabble life for young people who were drafted against their will and also for young people who volunteered,” said Hugh B. Price, a former president of the National Urban League and author who has studied the socio-economic impact of military service.
“I know this from personal experience when I was growing up in Washington, D.C.,” said Price, who is in his early 70s. “It’s true of young people coming out of inner cities as well as young people living in rural areas across the country.”
Those lifelong benefits will no longer be available to thousands of young Americans if the Obama administration makes good on its plans to sharply cut the Pentagon’s budget. The Defense Department last month proposed shrinking Army troop levels over the next few years to the lowest since World War II.
The current force of 520,000 would be reduced to between 440,000 and 450,000. If across the board cuts under sequestration were subsequently restored, the Army would shrink to 420,000, according to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
The Impact on Income
In addition to raising concerns about military readiness, the move could impede economic and social mobility for thousands of young men and women at a time when President Obama has vowed to strengthen anti-poverty programs and try to close the gap between the very rich and very poor.
Jay Teachman, a sociology professor at Western Washington University, said research shows that thousands of Americans, particularly those with low incomes, reap the financial benefits from a career in the Army, so long as they receive an honorable discharge.
“Even if they don’t earn more education, they certainly earn more money,” said Teachman, who looked at the relationship between military service and income between 1979 and 2002. “They’re plucked out of communities where they might not have had the same opportunities.”
The GI Bill, introduced and signed into law in 1944, has provided those opportunities to millions of veterans by giving them the financial means to earn a college degree. The program’s popularity peaked shortly after the end of World War II, with vets accounting for 49 percent of college admissions in 1947, according to government figures. The home loan program also got its start in 1944. Many older Army vets also cite their military service as a momentum-builder for later success in the civilian world.