Monday, September 24, 2012

The GI Bill: the Biggest-Ever Government Grant Program Transformed the Middle Class, the Economy, and Universities

With all the recent blathering about the role of the government in building a strong middle class, and about the 47 percent who are wards of the state, I'm surprised we've heard nothing about the biggest, most successful government aid program ever --the GI Bill. Enacted in 1944, that legislation provided assistance to returning WWII vets for college, businesses and home mortgages.

Suddenly, millions of servicemen were able to afford their own homes for the first time. As a result, residential construction jumped from 114,000 new homes in 1944 to 1.7 million in 1950.

Some 2.2 million vets attended college or graduate school, and 5.6 million prepared for vocations in auto mechanics, electrical wiring, and construction. They could attend any institution that admitted them, using benefits that covered even the costliest tuition and helped support spouses and children.

Before 1940, colleges were mostly for the privileged, but the GI Bill opened doors for rural people, offspring of first-generation immigrants, and veterans from working- and middle-class backgrounds. In so many cases, these vets were the first members of their families to attend college. This influx of vets transformed our colleges into the world-class institutions they are today.

Vocational training led to jobs with middle-class incomes and benefits. Millions took low-interest loans to start businesses.

Nearly three in ten veterans used low-interest mortgages to buy homes, farms or businesses. The economic impact was huge. In 1955, for example, the Veterans Administration backed close to a third of all housing starts.

Many famous people were helped by the GI Bill: Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush; Supreme Court Justices William Rehnquist, John Paul Stevens and Byron White; U.S. Senators Bob Dole, John Glenn, George Mitchell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan; entertainers Harry Belefonte, Johnny Cash, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, and Walter Matthau.

Four Historians Assess the GI Bill
I found a July 4, 2000, PBS NewsHour program -- "The GI Bill's Legacy" -- in which Jim Lehrer (who will host the first presidential debate in October) interviewed historians Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Haynes Johnson, and Michael Beschloss. Here is some of what they had to say:

Stephen Ambrose
The GI Bill was the best piece of legislation ever passed by the U.S. Congress, and it made modern America. The educational establishment boomed and then boomed and then boomed. The suburbs, starting with Levittown and others, were paid by GI's borrowing money on their GI Bill at a very low interest rate. Thousands and thousands of small businesses were started in this country and are still there thanks to the loans from the GI Bill.

It transformed our country....

But the GI Bill was designed to help veterans, not to transform America. No one had that idea in mind. But I'll tell you: millions of GIs who never, never dreamed that they might be able to go to college suddenly had the opportunity, and these guys went, and they became -- there's not a teacher in the country who isn't aware of this -- the best students we've ever had. [I can attest to this since I went to college with them and was impressed with their hard work and dedication. -- John]

God, they worked so hard, and they -- all of them -- came back to America feeling, "I just wasted the best years of my life. I know how to man a machine gun; I know how to fire a mortar; but I can't make a living out of this."

And now they had college opened up to them, and these guys [became] the students that every teacher in this country would just kill to have.

The American educational establishment of today, which is the envy of the world, was made by the GI Bill, and those veterans who came back brought about this enormous expansion and jobs for professors and jobs for technicians and jobs in the laboratories and students going to school learning and then going out into the world and applying what they have learned -- the beginning of modern America.

These GIs made modern America, and they did it because the government had enough sense to say we're going to educate these guys... we're going to give these guys an opportunity and they could go to Harvard. They could go to Stanford. They could go to the University of Chicago. They could go, as Art Buchwald did, to the Sorbonne in Paris and get 50 bucks a month if they weren't married, 75 if they were. Later on that figure was moved up, and they could study and work and improve themselves and the institutions that served them.

Doris Kearns Goodwin
I think few laws have had so much effect on so many people. It meant that blue collar workers, a whole generation of blue collar workers, were enabled to go to college, become doctors, lawyers, and engineers, and that their children would grow up in a middle-class family.

The president of Harvard said it would create "unqualified people, the most unqualified of this generation," coming into college. The president of the University of Chicago feared we'd be creating "educational hobos." But these were mature, responsible people, the best of their generation in college.

It shows what happens when you give people who don't have a chance an extraordinary opportunity.

Haynes Johnson
Five years after the war ended, twice as many Americans graduated from college [compared to 1940]. That's just the college part... there were 13 million homes built in the 50s. Eleven million of these with GI loans.... It did transform the country.

And the irony of this... this was the biggest government grant ever. Today people hate the government. This was once there was no debate about it. There's no controversy about it. There's no ideological argument about it.

Michael Beschloss
This had much greater impact on bringing Americans into the middle class than everything Roosevelt had tried to do over eight years in the 1930s.

At the time that the bill was debated in Congress it passed only by a very slim margin, and, in fact, a lot -- particularly Republicans -- said let's not pass this thing because a big part of the GI Bill was to give returning vets $20 a week for 52 weeks. They felt it would encourage sloth; that people would not try to get jobs. They thought that this would extend the welfare state, rather than do the opposite[Emphasis mine.]

The more things change, the more they remain the same. 'Nuff said.

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