The Servicemenís Readjustment Act of 1944 - commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights - has been heralded as one of the most significant pieces of legislation ever produced by the federal government and one that impacted the United States socially, economically and politically. This last Sunday, June 22, marked the 70th anniversary of the bill being signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The original bill was intended to help millions of returning World War II veterans transition back into civilian life. Some of the major benefits included affordable mortgages with low-interest loans, money for small-business startups, and one year of unemployment compensation, though less than 20 percent of veterans from that era chose to apply for the unemployment benefits. Any veteran with at least ninety day of active duty during WWII who had been honorably discharged was eligible for some benefits. That included vets who had not seen combat.
As with most things in Washington, the idea of the bill was hotly debated, but despite their differences, all agreed something must be done to help veterans assimilate back into civilian life. Much of the urgency stemmed from a desire to avoid the missteps following World War I, when discharged veterans got little more than a $60 allowance and a train ticket home.
During the Great Depression, some veterans found it difficult to make a living. Congress tried to intervene by passing the World War Adjusted Act of 1924, commonly known as the Bonus Act. The law provided a bonus based on the number of days served. But there was a catch: most Veterans wouldnít see a dime for 20 years.
A group of veterans marched on Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1932 to demand full payment of their bonuses. When they didnít get it, most went home. But some decided to stick around until they got paid. They were later driven out of town following a bitter standoff with U.S. troops. The incident marked one of the greatest periods of unrest our nationís capital had ever known.
The return of millions of veterans from World War II gave Congress a chance at redemption. But the GI Bill ultimately had far greater implications. It was seen as a genuine attempt to thwart a looming social and economic crisis. Some saw inaction as an invitation to another depression.
The Veterans Administration (VA) was responsible for carrying out the lawís key provisions: education and training, loan guaranty for homes, farms or businesses, and unemployment pay.
Before the war, college and homeownership were, for the most part, unreachable dreams for the average American. Thanks to the GI Bill, millions who would have flooded the job market instead opted for education. In the peak year of 1947, veterans accounted for 49 percent of college admissions. By the time the original GI Bill ended on July 25, 1956, 7.8 million of 16 million World War II Veterans had participated in an education or training program.
Millions also took advantage of the GI Billís home loan guaranty. From 1944-1952, VA backed nearly 2.4 million home loans for World War II veterans and millions more veterans and their families have benefited from the bill since that time as the bill has been continuously modernized and amended.
The G.I. Bill remains one of those rare Washington success stories, a multi-party meeting of the minds for the greater good of the country and its citizens. To this day, itís not hard to find veterans who give the bill credit for much of their successes in life whether it is through education or affordable access to home or business ownership.