Those who have served in the military often depend on more than government assistance specifically for veterans
Julian Zelizer: Welfare programs that President Trump plans to cut from civilian working class communities also have become a lifeline for those returning from war
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
America started observing Memorial Day after the Civil War as a way to commemorate the service of deceased Union soldiers. For Americans today, it has come to mean many other things — from the start of the summer season to a few days of great sales at stores — but the essence of this day should not be forgotten. Millions of Americans have given their lives to protect the democratic values and institutions that breathe life into our Republic.
But the day also offers a very good moment to consider the sacrifices of those who served — and made it home. Indeed, the best way that a nation can honor those who died is to take good care of those who are still alive — many of whom struggle with inadequate resources following the transition to civilian life.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump, who never served in the military, talked a big game about his respect for veterans and what he would do for them. His campaign speeches were full of praise and promises that under his administration, those who served would face a better future than they would under any Democrat. While continually blasting President Barack Obama for failing to do enough to assist veterans who struggled after they returned home, Trump promised to “take care of our vets like you’ve never been taken care of before.” On the surface, it looks like President Trump intends to deliver. While cutting almost everything else in sight, he wants Congress to increase the Department of Veterans Affairs budget by $4.4 billion, a 6% hike from fiscal 2017.
But veterans might want to take a closer look at this. The budget imposes several significant reductions, some direct and others indirect, that would have detrimental consequences for those who have served. Trump’s proposed budget would end the Individual Unemployability benefit payments to retirement-age veterans. There are almost 225,000 veterans who count on this program to earn 100% disabled rate payouts when they can’t find work as a result of military injuries, despite not being fully disabled.
Other cuts indicate that the President has left some of his campaign promises behind. His proposed budget also would “round down” cost-of-living adjustments by approximately $20 million next year and $2.7 billion over the decade. The proposal places a cap on GI Bill tuition payments to flight schools, and gets rid of the Limb Loss Resource Center, which helps veterans who have been injured and their families who care for them.
Funding for the Paralysis Resource Center and the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness will also be pulled. Established in 1987, this council has been responsible for coordinating the response of the 19 federal agencies that deal with combating homelessness. It has been instrumental in the tremendous gains that have been made in fighting the shameful crisis of homeless veterans in recent years. “Without coordination and oversight and giving some thought to how the money should be best spent,” one activist told the Associated Press, “the money may not go to the people who need it most.”
Just as detrimental are the levels of funding for mental health care and the homeless assistance programs – two vital areas of policy, given the fallout from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – which would remain the same without any boost in funding. A major problem for the Department of Veterans Affairs has been that the agency continues to work with an old infrastructure that needs a major overhaul and improvement. The answer to the long-wait lines and inadequate services is not to slowly chip away at essential programs but to provide support to make them even better. This budget won’t achieve that goal. Four months into his presidency, Trump has not yet delivered on his promised 24-hour hotline for veterans.
Many of the “savings” spelled out in the budget proposal are intended to facilitate the continuation and expansion of the controversial Choice Card program. Introduced in 2014, it allows veterans to obtain medical care outside the VA health care system. Critics have argued that over time this program of privatization, if not coupled with robust support for publicly administered programs (which was the vision of Sens. Bernie Sanders and John McCain when they authored this experiment), will undercut political and financial support for the VA, which has been the primary engine in delivering health care to veterans for decades.
Instead of reforming and improving the Choice Card program, the budget cut could create incentives for gradually eroding it and moving veterans into the problematic private health care sector. The program has done little since 2014 to improve medical service.
Veterans and their families will particularly suffer from a proposed budget that hits hard at the basic forms of government on which the middle and working class survive. Those who served depend on much more than federal programs that are only designed for them. They and their families often count on the rest of the welfare state. Severe cuts to the Meals on Wheels program will not sit well with the approximately half-million veterans who depend on these benefits every year.
A majority of Meals on Wheels veterans receive over half of their food intake from this program every day. In San Antonio, for instance, also known as “Military City USA,” one third of the Meals on Wheels recipients are veterans. “I voted for Trump,” one veteran told the San Antonio Current, “and I do believe there is a lot of tax money that is wasted on programs. This isn’t one of them.”
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The administration’s budget proposal aims squarely at the heartland of the nation and the veterans whose families are part of these communities. Veterans already suffered from President Trump’s executive order for a 90-day federal hiring freeze, given that they constitute one-third of the federal workforce.
On this Memorial Day weekend, President Trump should think about what those who have survived wars need from his administration. And while the rest of the citizenry ponders the same, it should also think about how our public policies can be tailored to provide the many benefits — from health care, to home assistance, to psychological services — that veterans need. We as a nation have failed in this mission and President Trump’s proposed budget could end up making conditions even worse.