This article is cross-posted at BillMoyers.com.
Roughly 1.4 million veterans live in poverty in the United States, and, in total, more than 45 million people live at or below the poverty line. These numbers are similarly unacceptable, yet the conversation around military poverty and civilian poverty couldn’t be more different. Common rhetoric around military poverty often follows this formula: active members of the military and veterans should not experience poverty because they served our country and made enormous sacrifices.
In a time of congressional gridlock, this often well-intentioned logic is tempting and politically acceptable. Even so, it is wrongheaded. The argument relies on damaging assumptions that avoiding hunger and poverty are something you need to earn (and consequently, that those civilians living in poverty somehow deserve hardship). It lends credence to a cynical divide and conquer approach that gives benefits to the “deserving” poor while leaving the “undeserving” to struggle.
It’s time for a new approach. Members of the military and veterans shouldn’t experience poverty because no one should live in poverty. As a result of military service, veterans, active duty military and their families may require more intensive resources—such as specialized health care or hiring initiatives — than civilians to have an opportunity to succeed. They should receive them. But too many policymakers have set up programs that could benefit both civilian and military families (and our economy), but have restricted civilian access to these programs.
For example, in 2007 Congress passed the Military Lending Act, which capped the loan interest rates of several consumer loans at 36 percent for active duty members of the military. This action was spurred by a Department of Defense report that called for legislative protections on the finding that predatory lending was prevalent in the military community; that it traps borrowers in a cycle of debt and subjects them to coercive debt collection practices; and that lenders take advantage of service members despite extensive financial training provided by the military. Even though civilians and veterans experience the very same problems described by the DOD report, protections for them were conspicuously absent from the bill. This failure to protect everyone takes a toll on our economy – every year, Americans pay $3.4 billion in payday lending fees.
In another example, some states have passed “trailing spouse” clauses to allow spouses to apply for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits if one partner is transferred to a geographic location that did not allow for the other spouse to commute to their current job. This policy would benefit all families because it allows families to move together and avoid economic insecurity while the “trailing spouse” looks to re-enter the workforce in a new location. In addition, UI is one of the most effective ways that public spending can stimulate the economy. Despite the demonstrated benefits of such a policy, some states have limited access only to military spouses.
Another opportunity for expansive thinking is the coordinated efforts to reduce veteran homelessness. Ending homelessness is both a moral and economic imperative. Research demonstrates that allowing homelessness to persist is more expensive for localities than housing people in many cases. By acknowledging this reality and responding with targeted policy reforms, cities like New York and Washington, DC, have seen dramatic decreases in the number of chronically homeless single veterans.
Much of this movement has been propelled by the success of “Housing First” strategies, which house homeless individuals quickly and provide them with wraparound services such as education, substance abuse counseling, and other social services as needed. A lot of this work has taken place in urban areas – in major cities, the number of homeless veterans has declined by 12 percent from 2012 to 2013.
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However, in these cities, the number of homeless people in families increased during that same period. To explain this phenomenon, Amien Essif suggests in Jacobin magazine that dramatic decreases in veteran homelessness in major cities may have occurred because limited financial resources have been shifted to target specific groups rather than expanding investments to be more inclusive. While the progress made on veteran homelessness is important, the strategy that has been embraced by some of these cities to achieve this goal is unsustainable. It perpetuates a system where vulnerable homeless populations are forced to compete over limited resources. The efforts to house homeless veterans prove that public policy and investments in housing can end homelessness. Policymakers should shift their thinking and make a financial commitment to ending homelessness for all people.
Our economy and people living on the margins need a new approach that insists no one should live in poverty. This indeed requires strong investments in members of the military and their families. But, we can’t stop there, leaving civilians and their families behind.