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What’s In The New GI Bill?

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Aired 11/11/09

The GI Bill, signed into law in 1944 by FDR, allowed more than two million veterans to attend college. The newest GI Bill, which went into effect August 1, 2009, provides education benefits for service members who served on active duty for 90 days or more since 9/10/01 and includes the National Guard and military reserve.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The GI Bill, after World War II, sent thousands of veterans to college, helped them become homeowners and, some historians say, set the American middle-class on a wave of prosperity that lasted more than a generation. The people who have just enhanced the education benefits of the GI Bill hope the new bill may have some of the same effects. It's just been a few months since the new benefits went into effect, so, we thought we'd check back in on the program, learn a little bit about the history of the GI Bill, and get our listeners involved in the discussion. I’d like to welcome my guests. Congressman Bob Filner. He’s chair of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Congressman Filner, welcome again to These Days.

CONGRESSMAN BOB FILNER (Chairman, House Committee on Veterans Affairs): Good morning. It’s a great topic on a great day.

CAVANAUGH: And Professor Abe Shragge is a historian teaching “War and American History” at UCSD. Welcome.

ABE SHRAGGE (Professor of History, University of California at San Diego): Thank you very much, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And our listeners are invited to join the conversation on this Veterans Day. Tell us about your experiences with the GI Bill. Are you or do you know a veteran who has benefited from the GI Bill? Tell us how. Or do you have questions about the recent enhancements to the post-9/11 GI Bill. Give us a call with your questions and your comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727. We’re going to be getting into the history of the GI Bill in a minute but first, Congressman Filner, as chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, I know you’ve been a big supporter of the enhanced GI Bill. How is it working out so far? Do you have any kind of feedback coming in?

FILNER: You know, this is one of the things I’m most proud of as chairman of our committee, that we passed this bill. We’ll get to the 1944 bill but I’m here because of that. I mean, my dad took advantage of that. And I wanted, frankly, to duplicate the impact that it had and the benefits because since 1944, we have had GI Bills for every generation of soldiers but the benefits have gone down and it’s just not kept up with the realities of the cost of college. So what we wanted to do was take care of the real cost of college, including, you know, living expenses and also make sure that – and we also, you know, beefed up the housing loan program so we could duplicate the impact that it had after World War II. So far, by the way, which we not only are covering the full cost of college for most of our students, but we have included, for the first time, the national reserve units who are doing half the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and if they participated, they will be eligible. In addition, if a veteran does not want to use or doesn’t need his or her benefits, they can be passed on to a spouse or children. I mean, that’s a credible kind of benefit. And this term – it just went into effect for this college semester, over a quarter million veterans have taken advantage of it so far.

CAVANAUGH: Whoa, that’s a big response.

FILNER: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Now take us back, though. Why did we need this enhancement? We did already have a post-9/11 GI Bill. Did that not address the concerns? Was it outdated almost as soon as it passed?

FILNER: There was not – there were GI Bills since the World War II one expired in the fifties but somehow they just gave a stipend of a certain amount of money and did not keep up with the inflation of tuition, did not recognize that you have to buy books, did not recognize that you may need childcare and transportation. It’s a new kind of student. And you may want to – and didn’t cost – take any account of living expenses to any great degree. And it didn’t include, as I said, the National Guard units. So the updating of it, again, was not only to keep up with inflation but – and to honor, you know, the veterans of today but to expand it to even, as I said, National Guard and reserve plus future generations. Children have already been signed up by some of the veterans for these benefits.

CAVANAUGH: That’s one of the aspects of this enhanced GI Bill that I find pretty amazing. So in other words, if the veteran, him- or herself, does not take advantage of these education benefits, they actually are transferable.

FILNER: Oh, yeah, and they can – as – I was amazed at some of the early applications. They registered their children this year for something that may be, you know, fifteen years away. But it will cover them and I think it’s appropriate that we do.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. And also, if I understand correctly, this enhanced GI Bill also makes – broadens the number of schools that veterans could possibly go to because of the increased amount of money that it will give them.

FILNER: Well, there are provisions in it that will allow a greater choice. It – The benefits cover the full cost of a public university and the money that – of the highest public university in a state is then used – is the base amount for a private university that you can go to. But the private universities can also participate in something that we call the Yellow Ribbon Program, which for every dollar above what the veteran would get based on the public tuition, would – will be matched by the federal government. So most of the colleges, the private colleges, are matching – are providing the full cost. I’ll just give you one benefit. Let’s say it costs $10,000 to go to Berkeley and that’s the highest in California. Well, let’s say Stanford costs $40,000. The difference is $30,000. The government would pay the $10,000 plus half of what Stanford will make up. So if Stanford makes up, say, $15,000 then the full cost of college would be paid by the – for the veteran.

CAVANAUGH: Thus, putting a lot more schools within the realm of possibility for...

FILNER: Yeah. Although, you know, we’re going to try to fix some things that have come up that are…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

FILNER: …problems. For example, distance learning. That is, there’s a lot of colleges that you can just do the internet but you still have living expenses…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

FILNER: …and we didn’t include those in the original bill. But in a low tuition state like we are because we subsidize education. It costs a lot more than $10,000 to go to Berkeley or $6,000 to go to San Diego State. But – So the veteran who comes from those – a low tuition state is penalized really because the maximum amount he or she can get when they go to a private school is based on that public tuition. And if a Stanford or a whatever doesn’t join the Yellow Ribbon Program, they may not be able to go to the private college. So we’re going to have to fix it so low tuition states are not penalized and their veterans will have a greater choice.

CAVANAUGH: So some tweaking is still…

FILNER: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …underway in this…

FILNER: We still have a little bit to go and we’re going to try to do it right away so the veterans will know for the second year what the benefits will be.

CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. My guests are Congressman Bob Filner and Professor Abe Shragge. Let’s take a phone call first. Clayton is calling in Lakeside. Good morning, Clayton. Welcome to These Days.

CLAYTON (Caller, Lakeside): Good morning, Maureen. How’s your Veterans Day?

CAVANAUGH: It’s going well, thank you.

CLAYTON: My question or comment is for the congressman actually.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

CLAYTON: I am a retired veteran. I served in the United States Navy, and I am currently going to school. But one thing from my side of the fence I’m noticing is that the VA was not prepared for the number of people that went through to try and utilize this new what we’ve been calling the post-9/11 GI Bill. And so I’m wondering, has anything been done to improve the service so that service members do not have the problems that…

FILNER: Right.

CLAYTON: …we’ve been running into.

FILNER: Well, you’re absolutely right, by the way, and we had sort of foresaw – foreseen this in the congress and we kept for years saying, are you going to be ready? Are you going to be ready? What resources do you need? What resources? And they said, we’ll be fine. And then the day of the enrollment period opened and they got flooded with applications and they weren’t ready. In D.C. for example, there were literally thousands of veterans who had made commitments like for an apartment to rent or groceries to buy and they hadn’t received any check or – and so we had some emergency provision for that. I guess you would expect kinks in the first time a program is rolled out. In addition, you know, the program was new and people, both the veterans had learned – and the colleges because we changed – We’re making payments, on the one hand for tuition to the colleges and, on the other hand, directly to the student, and that’s a change. I think the student got the money before this. And the colleges did not process some of the applications as quick as they should because they didn’t realize it depended on their certification that you were a student at that university. So I think coming up spring semester it’ll be a lot better, and some people, as I was telling Maureen, complicated the mix with applying for their kids, you know, 15 years in advance. I don’t – It was not an emergency to do that. And so – But their applications came in at the same time as a student wanting to start this September but I think that next semester it’ll be a lot smoother.

CAVANAUGH: We go from 15 years in advance to way back into the history of honoring veterans in the United States by giving them some benefits after their service. And I want to bring Professor Abe Shragge into the conversation. When did this idea of giving benefits for military service start in the U.S.?

SHRAGGE: Well, it had been around since the time of the Revolution. The Revolutionary War, the congress voted to reward its veterans with – in the only way it could, with land warrants. Something similar occurred after the War of 1812. Not until the Civil War and the post-Civil War era did veterans begin to lobby the congress for a much more sweeping sort of a benefit. The Veterans Pension Bill in the late 1860s created the foundation for the idea that veterans really did deserve something significant, something serious in return for their service. The World War I period saw a great problem emerge in giving veterans something for their service. The bonus that congress voted them in 1920 wasn’t to be paid until 1944 or ’45 and during the Great Depression when so many millions of Americans and so many veterans were in dire need, congress was not about to relent and pay the bonus early and that brought, in the early 1930s, the country close to revolutions.

CAVANAUGH: Right, there were the bonus camps, right? Set up in…

SHRAGGE: A bonus march, a bonus army, a bonus…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

SHRAGGE: …a bonus army encampment right across the river from the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

CAVANAUGH: And they – these people were basically routed, weren’t they, by U.S. military.

SHRAGGE: Yes, President Hoover called out the Army, led by Douglas MacArthur, ordered MacArthur not to fire on them and not to set fire to their camp. MacArthur disobeyed both of those orders and did disperse the bonus army and sent them…

FILNER: Were there people killed?

SHRAGGE: Yes, there were. There, indeed, were several – several adults and children killed in that melee.

CAVANAUGH: Well, that didn’t go very well. No.

SHRAGGE: Not at all.

CAVANAUGH: But after World War II things went a lot better in the idea of establishing this host of benefits for returning veterans from World War II. Tell us about the genesis of the World War II version of the GI Bill.

SHRAGGE: Well, the first GI Bill was created by congress in 1944 while the war was still going on. Some would call this the last gasp of the New Deal administration of Franklin Roosevelt. But congress did decide it was very important to take care of veterans for a number of reasons. One of the reasons that it was so important to remember, though, Americans and congressmen, at the time, were very concerned about the return of the Great Depression once the war was over. Once so many millions of young men came home from overseas, once the war industries shut down, what was going to happen to the economy? And so in terms of rewarding the veterans by keeping them out of the workforce for awhile, putting them in school, in terms of making it easier for veterans to buy homes, creating programs that built millions of homes in various cities and in new suburbs across the United States, had a great deal to do not only with thanking the veterans but with stimulating the economy in a very special way.

CAVANAUGH: And Congressman Filner, you were going – you said that you’re here because of the GI Bill. Tell us about that.

FILNER: Well, you know, the figure is about 8 million veterans took advantage of the college and the home loan. My dad came back from World War II. He was able to get some education but more important I think for us as a family, he was able to buy a home for a couple thousand dollars. He was one of – and he went to one of these new suburban developments that Levitt built in New York, mass produced housing for the middle class, and for the first time in our life—I had been living with relatives in apartments—all of a sudden we have a house and backyard. I mean, you’re part of the middle class. I mean, you’re living in a neighborhood that will have a good school probably. And so, you know, 8 million families basically got a new start from the GI Bill of ’44. Again, I think, you know, we became part of the middle class for the first time. I mean, we saw ourselves as very poor before that. And so not only he got to college but put us on a – our family, and as I said, millions of other families. And, frankly, when we were sitting around a couple of years ago saying how would we want to reward our newest veterans, my own experiences said we got to duplicate what we did in World War II. That is, again, the full cost of college but also the opportunity to get into the home market.

CAVANAUGH: And is Congressman Filner’s family’s history sort of – does it resound in the history of America in how that helped the middle class in the 1950s?

SHRAGGE: Absolutely. The GI Bill, the vet – the Servicemens Readjustment Act of 1944, as it was called, caused a wholesale expansion of the American middle class and the general American expectation that you could get a higher education, that you could own your own home, that you could really advance your life in a certain way. And it was thanks for the service that the service people had provided during the war.

FILNER: But I was interested to hear that, you know, it was also a practical necessity, one, to keep them off the job market and, two, stimulate the housing industry, which it did. I mean, it was an incredible – Whoever came up with it at that time, I mean, again, transformed America and, I mean, we are just now, I think, or we’re coming to the end of that sort of complete, you know, expansionary times that we became used to in this country after World War II. And now, for the first time, I think polls show that, you know, some of our younger people don’t even think they’re going to have life as a high standard of living than their parents for the first time in American history.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a call. Michael is calling from Chula Vista. Good morning, Michael. Welcome to These Days.

MICHAEL (Caller, Chula Vista): Good morning. I just wanted to wish the panel and everyone in the audience a good Veterans Day and thank the congressman for all the work he’s done on behalf of creating opportunity for a developing middle class in America. And I hope he could talk a little bit about his holistic approach to these issues about how the stimulus package, particularly the energy efficiency portion, is creating job opportunities for veterans and their families, people who need employment who are either working and underemployed or need jobs to provide for their families while they’re working on their dream of higher education.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

FILNER: You know, the caller’s right. A good chunk of the stimulus package, which was a $800 billion package, is just now going into effect for alternative energy development, creating jobs and training for people who were – to meet the 21st century energy economy and billions and billions of dollars are going to go into this and they’re – just now that money is getting out. And that’s going to dovetail into some programs that were recently announced by the president and the Secretary of the VA, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Secretary of Labor to say, you know, we want to get our homeless veterans, which is a disgrace for America to have, almost 200,000 of them, off the streets in five years. And that means a holistic approach, as the caller said, toward housing and medical care and job placement. And the new economy is going to be based on alternative energy and we’re going to try to get veterans into that new economy through training programs that we are now establishing.

CAVANAUGH: You know, President Barack Obama gave a speech yesterday at the memorial to honor the victims of the Fort Hood shooting rampage and he took the opportunity to praise all the members of the Armed Forces and, Congressman Filner, I wonder if you would comment on the Fort Hood tragedy and how our service members reacted.

FILNER: Well, you know, we don’t know yet the exact motivation or cause of the shooter but for whatever it is, it did show—and if you look at the stories of the people, first of all, who were at the processing center where they were injured or killed – This may have been the first deployment for some but for most it was second, third or even fourth. And that’s a pressure that we have not put on our active duty for ever. Very little time between deployments, repeated deployments, and it leads not only to physical injury, I mean the likelihood of, but it compounds the probability of mental issues. You can’t go to combat without feeling that you’ve done something that you may feel guilty about later and you may have killed an innocent kid that reminds you of your nephew, some – you know, one of your buddies might’ve been killed and you have guilt for that because you were talking to him and he was in a different place than he otherwise would have been and underneath what’s going on at Fort Hood is an Army that is very – it’s stressed and stretched almost to the breaking point, that is with mental health issues especially. The families are all impacted. We’re not giving them enough rest in between deployments. We’re sending them off. We don’t want to admit that they have mental issues because that will keep them out of – you know, it means another slot we have to fill. They fill them up with meds, with medicines, and send them back into battle. So Fort Hood, for whatever happened with the particular shooter, I think underscores what we have to do as a nation for not only – for active duty and for veterans, which is take care of their mental health because if we don’t, the Vietnam experience will be repeated. That is people who – half the veterans on the streets tonight are homeless – half the homeless on the streets tonight are Vietnam vets. That says something, almost 200,000 of them. In addition, a terrible statistic is that there have been more suicides by Vietnam vets than died in the original war. That’s more than 58,000. So as a nation, we have not taken care of these folks and we’d better do the job right with the newest veterans.

CAVANAUGH: In our closing minute here or two, I want to ask you, Congressman Filner, because this – as the president spoke yesterday, he made it a point to note that this volunteer army doesn’t have to look to the past to find greatness. It can find greatness in itself. And I wonder, do you think that we, as a nation, have looked on our volunteer Armed Forces differently than Armed Forces in the past?

FILNER: Well, I think if people aren’t reminded of what is going on and what debt we owe, they’ll tend to ignore it because it’s the smallest percentage ever. Many – most middle class families are not impacted by it so they tend not to think about it. And when things happen like at Walter Reed, several years ago when it was discovered that veterans were living in rat infested quarters, nobody was taking care of them, or Fort Hood, you know, underscores the pressures they’re under, then the American people say we need to support our veterans. And different from Vietnam is that we have pledged, even though this war is divisive and I’ve been against this war from the beginning, we’re going to make sure that every young man and woman that comes back from that war gets all the love, attention, care, honor and dignity that a nation can give. So we are, hopefully, treating these young men and women far differently than in previous wars.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both so much for speaking with us today. Thank you for coming in and talking with us about the GI Bill and about the larger issues on this Veterans Day. I want to thank Congressman Bob Filner, chair of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Thanks for being here. And Abe Shragge is a historian, teaching "War and American Society" at UCSD. Sorry we didn’t get to so many people who wanted to join in the conversation. Please do post your comments at KPBS.org/TheseDays. Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.

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