History of the post 911 gi bill®
The history of the Post 9/11 GI Bill® begins with the original GI Bill passed in 1944, though really it begins even before that.
The package of benefits for returning World War II veterans colloquially known as the GI Bill® needs to be understood in light of the experiences of returning World War I veterans a generation earlier.
After World War I, most discharged veterans received nothing more than $60 and a train ticket back to their home. Their educations, careers and family lives had been interrupted for months or usually years by the colossal disruption of war, and most of them had anywhere from minor to major physical and emotional disabilities with which to contend, yet they were pretty much left on their own to make do as best they could.
Congress attempted to rectify this situation by passing the World War Adjusted Act (the so-called Bonus Act) in 1924, but this provided only meager assistance to veterans, and worse yet the assistance was mostly timed to assist veterans in their old age 20 years down the road.
Indeed the Bonus Act arguably made the situation psychologically worse. Now veterans who were suffering and might not even make it to old age were told that there was the equivalent of a bank account set aside in their name that they could look at but not touch for decades. Angry veterans insisted that if this was ultimately intended to be their money, they needed it now, not later.
The situation simmered through the 1920s but came to a boil when the Depression hit and greatly increased the number of veterans (and Americans in general) who simply could no longer make ends meet. The worst incident occurred in 1932 when 43,000 protesters from around the country including 17,000 veterans gathered in Washington, D.C. to demand the immediate payment of the promised bonus.
The protesters were widely denounced as communists and malcontents, and President Herbert Hoover sent troops in under the command of General Douglas MacArthur to drive the protesters out of the city. In the ensuing melee, infantry, cavalry and tanks were used against the very people who years earlier had been in combat fighting for their country in Europe. Protesters were shot and in two cases killed, their makeshift dwellings were burned to the ground, and ultimately they were indeed driven out of Washington in some of the ugliest civil unrest the nation has seen.
The following year, a smaller number of veterans and their families and supporters gathered in Washington for a second protest. The new President Franklin Roosevelt did not condemn them and send in troops to suppress their march with violence. He praised them, sent his wife Eleanor to listen to them and negotiate with them, and altered the rules for his New Deal jobs programs to give certain advantages to unemployed veterans. However, the bottom line was that he opposed paying the veteran bonus early just as former President Hoover had.
In 1936 Congress overruled President Roosevelt’s judgment and voted to pay the veteran bonus early after all. The President vetoed the bill, but Congress overrode the veto.
The GI Bill® of 1944
In 1944, with the end of World War II in sight, the nation again faced the issue of how it would deal with the massive return of veterans from overseas. With memories of the divisiveness, ill will and unrest that had been generated by the poor assimilation of World War I veterans into civilian life still fresh in people’s minds, Congress debated how best to address the matter this time around.
What were returning veterans entitled to? What would they demand? Would it be more economically disruptive to the nation to come up with enough money for generous benefits for the returning veterans, or to allow such a massive number of working age people to suddenly reenter the job market with no assistance? Some feared that the wrong decision could send the country back into the Depression from which the war had finally allowed it to tentatively emerge.
Former Republican National Chairman Harry W. Colmery is credited with writing the first version of what was to become known as the GI Bill®, but the bill was altered throughout the process, passed in different forms in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and argued over in conference between the bodies as members tried to reconcile it into one law.
Some saw the proposed education benefits as excessive. Why cover so much of the cost of going to college for veterans? Attending college was very much the exception rather than the rule in the 1940s, something regarded as appropriate for rich people and a few eggheads but not the masses. It was something that the overwhelming majority of Americans—veterans and non-veterans—did without, rather like if it were proposed today to provide some group with substantial assistance to attend graduate school.
The proposed provision to pay $20 a week in unemployment benefits to unemployed veterans for up to a year was also controversial, with economic conservatives arguing that unemployment benefits in general removed the urgency to find work and accustomed people to look for handouts when they were in trouble rather than doing what they needed to do to support themselves.
In the end the GI Bill® (or Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) was narrowly approved, and signed into law by President Roosevelt on June 22, 1944.
Most commentators now regard the GI Bill® as a smashing success. Millions of workers were temporarily diverted into college instead of the workforce, thereby avoiding what could have been a massive unemployment problem. In the 12 years that the original GI Bill covered, 7.8 million veterans (roughly half of the total) received benefits to use toward college or another education or training program. Under another of the law’s provisions, veterans took out 2.4 million home loans with assistance from the Veterans Administration.
The bill’s generous education benefits and home loan guarantees so altered the life experience of a generation that from that point on attending college and owning a home became a normal part of the American Dream that people expected to achieve, not simply a remote hope like hitting a lottery.
In a true rarity for a government program, the unemployment provision, far from being exploited or leading to veterans preferring being on the dole to working, resulted in spending less than 20% of what had been allocated for that purpose.
The Montgomery GI Bill of 1984
The next major event in the history of the Post 911 GI Bill occurred in 1984. This version of the GI Bill serves as a sort of bridge from the original law, which expired in 1956, and the post 911 version of the law.
The 1984 version of the law acquired its nickname of Montgomery GI Bill from its association with sponsor Representative Gillespie V. “Sonny” Montgomery of Mississippi.
The 1984 GI Bill provided education benefits to veterans who have served at least two years. The law specified that benefits could be used toward college, business school, technical school, vocational school, distance learning and correspondence courses, apprenticeships and job training, flight training, and licensing and certification exams.
The Post 911 GI Bill
The next chapter in the history of the Post 911 GI Bill® occurred in 2008 when a new expansion of the GI Bill®, originally proposed by Senator James Webb of Virginia, was passed. The Post 911 GI Bill was then amended in 2010.
This current version of the GI Bill®—which applies to those with active service any time after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks—bumps the education benefits up further to pay in full the cost of veterans attending any public college in their state. In addition, the Post 911 GI Bill® includes a housing allowance and a stipend of up to $1,000 a year for books and supplies, and allows unused educational benefits to be transferred to spouses and children.
The history of the Post 911 GI Bill® can be interpreted as showing that the nation learned from its early mistakes that providing assistance for the assimilation of veterans into civilian life after a war is not only the humane thing to do, but the socially and economically prudent thing to do.