This history of the GI Bill is rarely considered by veterans and the American public financing it, but its impact on modern society cannot be denied.
The GI Bill, originally created as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, was created to help WWII veterans reintegrate to society after the war. It was administered by the Veterans Administration, now called the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The law created funding mechanisms to finance new hospitals, low-interest mortgages now called VA Home Loans, unemployment compensation, and stipend payments to cover tuition and expenses while in college or trade school.
The initial GI Bill provisions were credited with creating the expansive middle class that came out of that era.
The laws education and training provisions lasted until 1956 while the home loan program lasted until 1962. In 1966, Congress passed the Readjustment Benefits Act to extend the benefits to all veterans including those that served during peacetime.
Pre-GI Bill History
As far back as 1865, vocational training programs were focused on helping disabled veterans get training in new occupations in the program formerly known as the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.
Originally called the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, the program provided services to thousands of disabled veterans.
Initially, veterans were taught trades that included telegraphy, plastering, and gardening while residents of the National Home. By 1875, veterans learned cigar-making, knitting, printing and bookbinding, shoe-making, building steam engines, and more.
The vocational training benefit was limited to those who were in residence at its numerous locations.
In 1918, the government created a rehabilitation program for disabled veterans of WWI that worked with states, local businesses, and vocational schools. Called the Vocational Rehabilitation Act, PL 65-178, was administered by the Federal Board for Vocational Education.
Like the National Home, veterans would receive vocational training through the program. Unlike the National Home, the veterans were not required to be residents of the facility to receive the training benefits.
In 1921, three organizations existed to help veterans with retraining. That year, the rehabilitation program was transferred into the newly created Veterans’ Bureau.
In 1930, Congress created the Veterans Administration by combining the Veterans’ Bureau, the Bureau of Pensions, and the National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Veterans. In 1943, just prior to creating the GI Bill, Congress enacted PL 78-16 to broaden eligibility and to allow eligible veterans to receive up to four years of training to specifically restore employability.
What Precipitated The GI Bill Creation
Veterans of WWI did not integrate well with society when returning from Europe, and the available vocational training was limited to only disabled veterans.
The labor market was unable to absorb many of the returning soldiers. The federal and state governments were unable to provide sufficient support for the soldiers as well.
Lawmakers passed the Bonus Act in 1924 to offset financial hardships, but the program was not well thought through. Veterans were promised a bonus based on the number of days served. However, they would not receive payment until 1945, effectively rendering the benefit useless.
During the Great Depression, in 1932, an estimated 20,000 veterans created the Bonus Army and marched on Washington DC. They demanded their bonus money.
Not only did the government not pay the funds, but former President Herbert Hoover dispatched the Army to force the soldiers out. The resultant confrontation is still frequently discussed in many veterans’ circles disenfranchised by the current state of Veterans Affairs. It served as a turning point in the fight for veterans’ rights.
The Birth Of The GI Bill
Toward the end of WWII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to create a New Deal solution for veterans to avoid problems like what happened after WWI, or at least that’s what the History Channel wants us to think.
Whoever their writer was for the topic did not do a lot of research.
The History Channel’s take on this movement is ironic given FDR’s involvement in stripping veterans of their benefits to pay for the New Deal in 1933 after his election.
At the time, he pushed lawmakers and the Veterans Administration to adopt restrictive insurance adjudication regulatory frameworks that stripped veterans of benefits.
The money not paid to veterans was then diverted to FDR’s various projects under the New Deal. The push behind the GI Bill creation was to expand the Middle Class and fight economic turmoil.
Anyway, according to the History Channel, FDR “started preparing for the veterans’ return well in advance of the end of the war. Congress tossed around various ideas, but they limited benefits to veterans who met specific criteria such as income.”
Is that what happened? Not really.
The history of the GI Bill tells a different story.
By the time of the creation of the GI Bill of Rights, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion (Legion) were entrenched advocacy groups considered the twin pillars of veterans’ advocacy and lobbying on Capitol Hill.
The first draft of the GI Bill was drafted largely by Harry W. Colmery, former National Commander of the Legion and the Republican National Committee Chairman. The original ideas of the GI Bill were reportedly written on a napkin at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC.
The “fathers of the GI Bill” were US Sen. Ernest McFarland (D-Az), and Warren Atherton (R-Ca), National Commander of the Legion. And like most things, the birthing of the GI Bill also had a mother, Edith Nourse Rogers (R-Ma).
President Roosevelt initially proposed a means test meaning only poor veterans would get funding, and that funding was for one year of school. Only veterans with top scores would receive four years of benefits.
While the History Channel’s account of FDR’s involvement continues the mythology of the late President, the reality of the GI Bill was that bipartisan lawmakers put together a program that helped create the middle class. FDR’s version would have been far less impactful.
Original GI Bill Benefits
The benefit gave veterans a variety of options to help reintegrate into society through education and other economic opportunities.
Veterans wishing to get educated could attend college or vocational schools tuition-free while also receiving up to $500 as a cost of living stipend. The benefit was so popular and well-received that 49 percent of college admissions by 1947 were veterans.
Veterans qualifying for unemployment benefits could receive $20 per week for up to one year while looking for work. Job counseling was also an option.
The government also insured loans for veterans borrowing money to buy a home, business, or farm. The loans allowed tremendous expansion from urban areas into lookalike homes in suburbs throughout the nation.
Medical care was also a component of the GI Bill. VA received substantial funding to expand its healthcare services and new hospitals were built.
On paper, the GI Bill provided benefits regardless of race or gender.
But the history of the GI Bill tells a different story. In reality, some veterans had an easier time using their benefits that others. African Americans and women struggled to receive access to higher education benefits and loans.
Women and African Americans were steered away from college toward menial jobs. Local banks were also known to engage in discriminatory lending practices despite the loan guarantees underwritten by the federal government.
Even 70 years later, the agency still struggles with problems of race and sex.
The Montgomery Version
In 1984, Congress passed the Montgomery GI Bill that made the benefit permanent. The law effectively ensured Vietnam veterans could receive an education after serving in the war.
The Montgomery GI Bill is an opt-in program where service members also have to serve for at least two years on active duty and those in the Selected Reserve meeting certain criteria. Veterans seeking the benefit were required to pay in $100 per month for twelve months.
After paying in and serving the required amount of time, beneficiaries would receive $1,500 (in 2012 dollars) per month to attend college full time for a maximum of 36 months. Veterans were required to use the benefit within 10 years of separation from active duty.
The Post-9/11 Version
In 2008, the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act was passed by Congress. It impacted veterans on active duty on or after September 11, 2001. The law expanded access to the benefit and included an option to transfer unused GI Bill benefits to the spouse or child of a veteran.
Eligible veterans could receive not just the monthly stipend payment. The new version of the GI Bill covered tuition at any public college, a monthly subsistence payment for housing, and a stipend to cover books, as well as other benefits.
The Forever Version
In 2017, the Forever GI Bill was signed into law by passage of the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act. The legislation expanded the GI Bill even further to include the following criteria:
- The 15-year limitation on using the GI Bill was eliminated
- Work-study programs were expanded
- Veterans received priority enrolment educational counseling
It is undebatable that the history of the GI Bill carries significance not only for veterans but in the shaping of American society. It even played a role in expanding the middle class and urban sprawl.
The benefit allowed veterans who otherwise may not have otherwise been able to afford college or vocational training a chance to secure the same.