Veterans: A Building Block of the Middle Class

An Essay by Colonel Matthew Amidon, Director of the Military Service Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute

A continued investment in America's veterans will help sustain and grow the middle class. 

"Then came the big day when we marched into Germany — right through the Siegfried Line." 1945. (National Archives)

We all know about the Greatest Generation, those Americans who survived the Great Depression and then served their country during World War II. And well we should.

The Americans from that period not only saved the nation from tyranny and ruin. They later became the backbone of the postwar economy. Many of our parents and grandparents built businesses, worked on farms and assembly lines, and birthed new industries. Across the country, these young Americans applied the skills they learned or honed during the crucible of war. 

And when the war was over, the GI Bill of Rights helped them step forward. The legislation was one of the most transformational investments the United States government has ever made. Between 1945 and 1956, over eight million GIs used the legislation to enroll in some form of college. 

Before then, pursuing an education beyond high school had been reserved for a privileged few. But the GI Bill paid off in a solid, expanding middle class. A congressional report cites a return of $7 for every $1 Washington invested in the measure.

Before [the GI Bill], pursuing an education beyond high school had been reserved for a privileged few. But the GI Bill paid off in a solid, expanding middle class. A congressional report cites a return of $7 for every $1 Washington invested in the measure.

Veterans who have returned home from serving their country in Iraq and Afghanistan are equally intent on using the skills they have acquired to new jobs, rewarding professions, and the American economy. They represent a far smaller share of the population. Less than one percent of Americans serve in the military. Still, today’s veterans represent a building block of our middle class.

That’s in part because about 80 percent of those entering the military today come from families earning anywhere from $38,000 to $80,000 and beyond. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the median middle class income is $61,000, so you can see that our armed services draws primarily from one part or another of the middle class.

Today’s veterans represent a building block of our middle class ... in part because about 80 percent of those entering the military today come from families earning anywhere from $38,000 to $80,000 and beyond.

Those veterans also benefit from investments we have made in their future. The original GI Bill has been revised on several occasions, and today’s legislation applies to families as well as service members. Through the latest version of the legislation, almost 350,000 post-9/11 veterans have completed a post-secondary certificate or degree. What’s more, 25 percent of them have earned more than one certificate or degree. In total, the legislation has helped fund more than 450,000 post-secondary certificates or degrees. 

U.S. Navy Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class Randall Hutton solders a connecting wire aboard USS Harry S. Truman, October 26, 2018. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sean Elliott / U.S. Navy)

Not only is this a reflection of our commitment to those who serve in the military, it also is an investment in our own future. For one thing, veterans are engaged in studies that will meet the demands of high-growth fields. As one example, about 11 percent of degree-earning veterans have majored in STEM-related fields. That is the second-most popular area of study behind business.

Not only is this a reflection of our commitment to those who serve in the military, it also is an investment in our own future.

Their science, technology, engineering, and math orientation should come as no surprise. Members of today’s military must use sophisticated technologies to guide ships, aircraft, and drones. They must build bridges — literally — in places that war has destroyed. And they must use the concepts learned in math and science classes to unravel problems on the battlefield, at sea, and in the air.

The cockpit of a C-17 Globemaster III, July 26, 2017. (Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee / U.S. Air Force)

The benefit to our middle class is that, generally speaking, the higher the degree, the higher the income. On average, post-9/11 veterans who complete bachelors’ degrees earn just over $71,000 a year. That compares to their non-veterans with a bachelors’ degree. They earn just over $67,000 a year. The difference is striking as well for those who go beyond a four-year degree. Post-9/11 veterans with a graduate degree earn an average of $124,000 a year compared to $99,000 on average for non-veterans.

These facts provide a compelling reason for our leaders to maintain funding for the GI Bill. On a macro level, the law will continue to expand our middle class as more veterans retire from their service. Since 2009, the measure has helped 453,000 veterans earn a degree. Over the next 10 years, the National Veteran Education Success Tracker estimates, another 1.4 million will have earned a degree.

On a micro level, veterans offer individual employers the talents their companies need. Their ability to think critically, solve problems in a crisis, and work in diverse teams translates into a productive, valuable employee for any company in the modern economy.

Just as those veterans who came back from World War II fueled the postwar boom, today's veterans are an important component of future economic growth. They largely came from the middle class and their skills are likely to keep them reliable members of the middle class that America depends upon for stability.

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