If a federal government program is to accomplish its mission, it has to begin at the grassroots and be nurtured like a delicate plant by the citizens who sowed it.
The volumes of government programs that fail are a ready target and fodder for critics wary of costly, piecemeal legislation crafted by politicians and special interests with little input from the public.
Arguably, the most successful federal program is the GI Bill for World War II veterans steam rolled through a reluctant Congress by the American Legion veterans of World War I.
The Legion crafted the outline for the program, worked out details and put pressure on Congress to approve the bill by final by a unanimous vote – 50-0 in the Senate and 387-0 in the House.
The Legion had to do some final work as a conference committee stalled approval of differences in the House and Senate bills as the House members split 3-3 and refused to vote a sick member’s proxy.
The bill was saved by rushing Rep. John Gibson from Georgia to cast his vote.
Most people while growing up in the 1960s and later gave no thought to the GI Bill because it was a fact and really never had a lot of controversy.
While sitting in recently on the 70th anniversary of Waupaca County Draftees Feb. 11, 1943, the “52/20 Club” was mentioned and I had never heard of it.
A search of the Internet eventually led me to the GI Bill.
This particular item was an unemployment program paying $20 for 52 weeks.
WWII veterans eschewed the 52-20 as less than one-fifth of potential benefits were claimed and only one out of 19 veterans exhausted the 52 weeks of checks.
Other programs administered by the Veterans Administration were education and training, and loan guaranty for a home, farm or business.
The keystone of the GI Bill is that the WWI veterans had firsthand experiences of adjusting to civilian life, what the greatest needs were and likely solutions to meeting these needs.
It came down to the same factors today, education and money.
The difference being loans were hard to come by and only a few people went to school beyond high school or dropped out even earlier.
The Great War overlapped the Great Depression and left an economy in crisis.
Members of the American Legion met Dec. 15, 1943, in Washington and by Jan. 6 had completed the first draft of the GI Bill.
The broad outlines were in the final law signed six months later.
The Legion led a nationwide campaign to win the bill’s passage by contacting every member of Congress and flooding any fence-setter with letters from home.
We grow up hearing about how the GI Bill transformed America, but few know just how great an impact it had.
Searching the Internet gave these facts:
• The education program ended July 25, 1956. In the peak year 1947, veterans accounted for 49 percent of college enrollment.
Out of a veteran population of 15,440,000, some 7.8 million were trained, including 2,230,000 in college, 3,480,000 in other schools, 1.4 million in on-job-training and 690,000 in farm training.
Total cost of the WWII education program was $14.5 billion. That calculates to less than $2,000 for each veteran that used the education bill.
• Millions who would have flooded the labor market instead opted for education, which reduced joblessness during the demobilization period.
When they did enter the labor market, most were better prepared to contribute to the support of their families and society.
• Home loan guaranties boomed, from June 22, 1944, until passage of the Korean GI Bill, the VA backed 2,360,603 home loans.
In 1947, the peak year, the VA approved 640,298 loans, including 562,985 for homes, 24,690 for farms and 52,623 for businesses.
Similar programs have been available to veterans of Korea and Vietnam.
Anecdotal comments include:
• The Bureau of Census reported that WWII veterans not only gained a significant edge in education over non veterans but overcame a temporary lag in earning power, increasing their income by 40 percent to the non veterans’ 10 percent in the four years after 1947.
• Before the GI Bill, veterans were considered homeless derelicts because so many were unable to find work upon returning from previous wars, including the Civil War, Spanish American War and WWI.
• James A. Michener, the novelist, wrote in January 1993 that the original GI Bill is one of the two or three finest laws congress has ever passed.
The other two, the 1862 Homestead Act and 1862 Land-Grant Act were passed in the middle of war.
Maybe it says a lot about us as a nation. We do our best work, including legislation and creating beneficial programs, when in crisis.
We think about the needs of we the people because we are in a conflict as a nation and not as individuals.