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Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Charity, Social Insurance, and Veterans

Rebecca Burgess at Law and Liberty:
The 1917 veterans benefits system is the system that the Department of Veterans Affairs uses today, groaning under the weight of an enormously expanded set of veterans benefits haphazardly added on after a century’s worth of wars, all reflecting changing (and often conflicting) views of individual rights, government benefits, economics, and military service. Richard Levy has written out a helpful explainer of the contemporary conflagration resulting from the dynamics at work in these benefits—something he calls the “uneasy mixture of two basic models of government benefits,” the charitable and the social insurance models.

In the charity model, “whatever moral obligation the nation may owe its veterans, the fulfillment of that responsibility is, from a legal perspective, a voluntary undertaking.” The charity model prevailed for a significant portion of American history, including during the time the veterans benefit system emerged. The creation of Social Security, Welfare, and Medicare decades later signaled a different understanding of government benefits, what we commonly call entitlements, and which Levy calls the “social insurance model” of benefits. Levy writes that in this latter model, “benefits are a form of social contract through which the government uses its taxing and spending powers to spread the costs of old age, disability, unemployment, and poverty.”

In the expansion of modern veterans benefits to include now housing insurance and fertility treatments, we can see the social insurance model in play, along with the charity model. The dual motivations of gratitude and a just repayment of a debt behind those two models are not difficult to discern. But the range of benefits the contemporary veteran can qualify for is so expansive that the veteran’s relationship with the VA may be the most important relationship in her post-service life. The VA can define who, as a veteran, she is in her own mind—whether disabled, because she receives a check for such, or not. And in its capacity as the second largest federal agency and the most visible public expression of the nation’s gratitude towards its veterans, the VA certainly shapes the American public’s expectations and understanding of who the veteran is.

Society’s medicalized perception of the veteran is further reemphasized, as James D. Ridgeway has noted, by veterans service organizations frequently lobbying for all benefits as compensation that is owed the veteran, as their right. But in fact, the “wounded warrior” is the centerpiece of veterans’ legislation in the 21st century not only because medical care is its historical root, but also because stakeholders and legislators have learned that highlighting the “brokenness” of veterans is the most effective mechanism to move legislation through Congress.

In 1980, Harris and Associates explicitly recommended this tactic to legislators even while noting its risky downsides for the public image of the actual veterans. That Congress liked the recommendation and paid no attention to the warning seems obvious in the post-9/11 context by the frequency with which members in the House and Senate introduce suicide prevention legislation despite repeated empirical evidence that veterans’ most consistent source of stress is understanding how to navigate the veterans benefits system, and being able to secure meaningful employment.

This by no means is to make light of the statistics about veteran and military suicides. But at what point does holding one single perspective distort the truth of a photograph or a profession, a person or a phenomenon?