As we pause this week to honor the service and sacrifices made by veterans to protect our freedom and the American Dream, we should not forget that for too many veterans the American Dream remains out of reach. Sadly, many veterans and their families face the same economic struggles confronting millions of other Americans fighting to make ends meet and provide a better opportunity for their children in today’s economy – an economy characterized by high unemployment and low-wage work.
For veterans, like their non-veteran neighbors, public policies and programs have actually proven effective at improving their opportunity to meet basic needs and get ahead. And when policy choices have sought to limit access to health care or supports for workers earning low-wages, for example, veterans have also been hurt.
Veterans overall have a lower unemployment level than the national average, nearly one percentage point lower. But as of October 2014, Gulf War II-era veterans—those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan—had a 7.2 percent unemployment rate, representing a full 188,000 veterans who are out of work. Young veterans have also been disproportionately impacted by the lack of jobs. In 2013, 24.3 percent of male veterans between 18 and 24 years old and 14.3 percent of female veterans between 18 and 24 were unemployed. Given the large presence of military bases in North Carolina and active duty personnel, it is not surprising that North Carolina’s veteran unemployment rate is slightly lower than these national numbers with an unemployment rate for Gulf War II-era veterans at 6.5 percent as of 2013.
For those veterans in North Carolina who are working, median income is $35,080 — higher than the income of average nonveterans ($23,193) — but still nearly $15,000 short of what it takes for a family of four to make ends meet according to the current state Living Income Standard developed by the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center. One in thirteen veterans in North Carolina lives in poverty compared to one in five North Carolinians overall.
It should also be emphasized that public policies targeted at increasing access to opportunity for veterans make a big difference. As the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities detailed in blog posts this week, since 2010, government housing policies have effectively reduced homelessness for veterans by more than 33 percent. More than 343,000 veterans received rental housing benefiting as well more than 120,000 children while Supportive Housing Vouchers for Veterans have also likely contributed to decline in homelessness.
Education and job training programs and funding for veterans has also helped to ensure that those seeking skill upgrades can access and complete credentials or degrees that deliver greater earning potential. In 2013, the post-9/11 GI Bill provided more than 750,000 veterans nationwide with education and housing assistance. Additionally, more than 61,000 veterans receive support in putting food on their tables through SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
But just as public policies have helped to ensure a clearer path to opportunity for veterans, recent choices made at the state level have also made it more difficult for veterans to secure the American Dream. While most veterans receive health insurance through their employer or the Department of Veteran Affairs, some do not and would have benefited greatly from Medicaid expansion in North Carolina. An estimated 23,000 veterans in North Carolina and another estimated 8,400 spouses could have benefited had policymakers efforts to ensure access to health care for our service members through Medicaid expansion. The end of the state Earned Income Tax Credit, a policy that helps workers earning low-wages make ends meet, represents another roadblock for an estimated 79,000 veterans and active duty personnel in North Carolina as they work to support their families.
The American Dream is ultimately made possible because we come together as a nation to build a path to economic opportunity and a more equal possibility of economic mobility through public policy. Veterans serve and protect this promise and they too are harmed when our choices fall short of these ideals. At this time of year we would do well to honor veterans for their sacrifices and service and also recommit ourselves to making the policy choices that build a stronger country and economy for all.
Alexandra Sirota is the Director of the North Carolina Budget & Tax Center.
Image: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons