A Proposed Conservative Alternative to Disability Compensation for Vets

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Winter 2014;Philanthropy Magazine

Thomas Meyer has been doing great work for the Philanthropy Roundtable monitoring and publicizing foundation-funded programs for veterans, but his article in the latest Philanthropy magazine, titled “Real Opportunities for Veterans,” is an unfortunate ideological turn. He suggests that the VA system for compensating disabled veterans has made these returning heroes and heroines focus on identifying themselves as disabled, rather than progressing into education and jobs. He proposes that veterans voluntarily forego disability payments in return for participating in a foundation-funded “one- to three-year stream of medical, rehabilitative, educational, and job-placement resources that would prepare them to thrive.”

Meyer’s theory is that the nation’s current system of disability payments is “often harmful…monetary patronization” that “is not sustainable, not necessary, and not in the best interests of many of today’s veterans.” He also suggests that the current system is backlogged by all of the disability claims, distracted by processing claims rather than helping disabled veterans, and running up lifetime costs that, in terms of disability compensation for already enrolled Iraq-Afghanistan veterans, will be above $425 billion. He suggests that the system, due to its “perverse incentives,” leads veterans into a life of “waiting at home for disability checks that disconnect them from the active habits, personal satisfactions, and social linkages of self-supporting work.”

Since Meyer acknowledges that the disability checks are “modest” or “small,” it is hard to imagine that these small payments are sufficient enough to lure veterans with disabilities into lives of passive dependency. The federal government’s disability compensation rates for veterans make “modest” an understatement.

What is missing in Meyer’s prescription is the idea that such small disability payments could and should co-exist with privately funded—and government-funded—programs for disabled veterans. They aren’t mutually contradictory. Veterans shouldn’t be encouraged to divorce themselves from disability payments to participate in a conservative philanthropic experiment for providing medical, rehabilitative, educational, and job-placement assistance, because the VA payments for the veterans—and their dependents—do contribute to the veterans’ stabilization in their return to civilian life.

The other problem in Meyer’s scheme concerns philanthropy itself. While there are a number of foundations that have put resources into programs for disabled veterans, there is hardly a deluge of philanthropic money flowing in this direction. Programs that convene foundations on this topic seem to draw pretty much the same coterie of foundations time and time again. Many foundations respond that they are concerned about this issue and supportive of veterans, but they don’t have grant programs on veterans’ issues or for veterans programs.

But the Philanthropy Roundtable’s ideological message, which favors private funding as an alternative to funding from tax revenues and views government “entitlements” as inevitably turning disabled veterans into “wards of the state,” infects some of Meyer’s otherwise useful observations about what makes veterans programs work. The article has the feel of conservative philanthropic social engineering, using disabled veterans as an artificial vehicle for a statement about the purportedly debilitating effect of government entitlements, consistent with the perspectives of funders such as the Bradley Foundation and the Simon Foundation, and of board members with backgrounds in think tanks like the Acton Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Center for Individual Rights.

Meyer’s prescriptions for veterans with disabilities look in places like a potpourri of ideas—internships, matched savings accounts (like IDAs), mentoring, financial planning, wilderness training, Segway transporters, and more. He describes them as “independence-bolstering resources” that wouldn’t debilitate disabled veterans with the allure of bad disincentives, but offer incentives that would help them take advantage of opportunities for getting back into the mainstream of the U.S. economy. He’s right that there should be resources for getting veterans jobs and education, but for disabled veterans, they should be intensive, concentrated service programs, lest the legitimate, serious needs of disabled veterans become demeaned and ignored. There is nothing in the prescription for intensive services that necessitates a lessening of disability compensation payments for disabled veterans.

Many of the programs that provide the intensive, front-loaded job preparation and placement are generally government-funded. It is programs through the VA and the Department of Labor that power the programs that do the intensive, long-term career support helping disabled veterans find education and jobs. The idea that philanthropy will take the place of these government-funded programs is conservative wishful thinking.

Could the VA do better with processing the backlog of disability claims? Of course, and under General Eric Shinseki’s leadership, the VA is finally putting its house in order. Is there a role for philanthropy to play in making intensive programs for disabled veterans more available? Ask any of the nonprofit networks that provide services and support to disabled veterans and they will agree, but most almost certainly believe that philanthropy should supplement, not be a substitute for, government funding. Advocacy for greater philanthropic engagement in programs for disabled veterans is fine, but that shouldn’t be contorted to make a conservative political point against government-funded entitlements and government-funded programs that defies common sense and on-the-ground realities.—Rick Cohen

  • Lindom

    Very good article on explaining what Mr. Meyer is proposing and have no issues with what you have written with the exception of the 7th paragraph (2nd from bottom of article) in claiming to be “conservative wishful thinking”. As a conservative myself and know many conservatives across the country this would not be an acceptable change to them, though am aware of some of the so-called conservative politicians are attempting to privatize various issues, this should not be one of them.

    Usually I enjoy and have found your articles to be informative and many times helpful in my nonprofit volunteering, except where the tone of certain articles have a political tone (usually liberal/far left) to them which has been more and more over the last year.

    Since the government as representatives on behalf of “We the People” via the Department of Veterans Affairs and the DOD made a commitment to these veterans (post 9/11) and those before them (pre 9/11) that if they have medically and officially deemed to be disabled they will be cared for. This not only included disability pay but resources and programs to help them get back on their feet in those cases where the veteran cannot physically work (deemed 100% disabled due to injuries in a combat zone known as service-related). Then there is those deemed as disabled with a lower rating between 10%, or 30% but less than 100%, these could be veterans with something disabling but the veteran may still be able to work some kind of full time work or at least part time to supplement their VA disability payment.

    The problem is there are less and less jobs out in the real world (if there was we shouldn’t and wouldn’t have the need for people to be receiving unemployment checks for 5+ years) and our veterans are usually having to compete with civilians who have have been out of work due to the current recession even with the various programs providing training, etc. via government-funded and non-government agencies funded via Direct and Indirect Public Support.

    Again We the People through our government representatives we promised these men and women who signed on the dotted line and took an oath to serve the United States of America and its legal citizens and protect our constitution from foreign and domestic enemies up to and including paying the ultimate sacrifice, we are obligated to support them in any way we can.

    Mr. Meyer and whoever assisted him in writing this article needed to do more research and apparently forgot the promise made to our veterans. The funding provided to be there for our veterans is derived from taxpayer dollars and taxpayers making monetary contributions to the non-government funded legit organizations known as “Direct” and “Indirect” public support (AKA Contributions).

    As an individual who has been involved with supporting our military and veterans plus their families through monetary donations and volunteering with various Military and Veteran Support organizations for 45+ years, the current system will be the way to continue to go, we just need to bring the VA system into the 21st century where they are just realizing there would be more medically disabled veterans with more of them being saved from dying on the battle field as previously encountered with Vietnam (58,000+ KIA), Korean conflict, WWII, and WWI due to the medical improvements made to the operations’ of the forward Medical bases set up in such combat designated zones since 9/11. Plus the government stopping financing state specific programs, providing foreign aid to countries who have publicly stated they “hate us”, and stop taking away from the DOD and VA funding and personnel they need to do the job they are suppose to be doing. Yes the VA has a backlog primarily due to realizing the number of returning warriors could and would have medically issues due to combat injuries (physical, TBI, PTSD, etc.) over the past 13 years and the number of pre 9/11 veterans who have had PTSD for years but couldn’t get the help they needed until the VA finally acknowledged PTSD plus the thousands of Pre 9/11 veterans who have illnesses related to Agent Orange testing back in the 60s that over the past 5+ years have been advised due to such Agent Orange related illnesses were to apply for VA Disability once again when the VA finally admitted Agent Orange impacted many Pre 9/11 veterans from the Vietnam era war.

    Those involved in the nonprofit sector should be figuring out more ways to help our veterans who deserve these benefits including disability payments instead of making proposals that in the long run will only take away promised support to these veterans. Everyone should be looking at solutions that would work and not proposals that will only make a problem worse.

    Just the opinion of a Conservative voter (since 1968) but since the term “Conservative” was used in this article felt I as an individual needed to remind people of our duty and obligation to these brave men and women who serve and have served this country of ours even with many freedoms we have enjoyed for many years now seem to be a different one taken away each day under our noses because of a few currently in our government who feel they have the right to do whatever they think his the way to go and have forgotten they are also and still employees of “We the People” and officially or approved to become dictators in the Land of the Brave and Home of the Free.

    The other issue in our country is many people feel because they don’t believe in any “war” they have not realized their feeling against war has nothing to do with helping and supporting our men and women who serve our country now and those who served honorably in the past whether it be via our tax dollars, volunteering, or contributing by personal donations still applies. Since without such service those against war would not have the “freedom” to protest or speak out against any war or anything else they may not agree with.

    I do apologize for such a long posting related to this article but again felt someone needed to say something regarding this so-called proposal by someone outside of the “military and veteran support” side of our world.


  • William Elmore

    Philantrophey abandoned veterans, veterns services and funding during and in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. To come forward now as the answer simply does fit the reality. I do agree that they should/could play a significant role in successful economic assimilation as should government resources (vets are a creation of government actions in the first place). Vets do not want to be dependent on government but when the private and philantrophic community abandons us, we have no choice.