If we're fighting a war, then we need a new GI Bill

If we're fighting a war, then we need a new GI Bill
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Over the past two months, politicians, including the president of the United States, have called efforts to fight COVID-19 a "war." In fact, even that phrasing, "fight COVID-19," conjures up militaristic efforts to fight what the president has called "the invisible enemy." 

So, if we accept that we are fighting a modern-day war against a deadly and contagious enemy, then we must develop policies to help our modern-day frontline warriors the same way we helped veterans returning from war 75 years ago. This will help veterans of the COVID-19 crisis recover from their combat and will reflect well on how we treat our battle-tested heroes.

During World War II, well before final victory, the United States Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt began crafting what became the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, frequently called the GI Bill. The bill, intended to show great appreciation for the sacrifices of veterans and to help reintegrate them into society and civilian life, included numerous important policy provisions that helped launch our country into one of its greatest periods of economic growth.

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The GI Bill is not only a case study that speaks to the heart of our great country, but also offers a revealing story of important and creative policymaking. 

Today, millions of essential workers labor in dangerous conditions daily, so the need to ensure they receive resources to readjust once the COVID-19 crisis is behind us is similarly grave and great. Similar legislation to the existing GI Bill would acknowledge the sacrifice of health care workers, grocery store clerks, postal workers, police officers and many others — heroes fighting for our safety during this COVID-19 pandemic.

The GI Bill's nuts and bolts can also be retooled to address current heroes' needs. First, the GI Bill roundly rejected efforts to make benefits means-tested, instead extending benefits to all World War II veterans. Today, some of the workers making the greatest sacrifices — doctors and nurses among them — are professionals earning middle or upper-class incomes. When crafting our modern-day GI bill, we cannot forget about their needs, their heroic efforts and assisting their efforts to readjust after this public health crisis.

Second, the GI Bill promoted and funded education and training for returning veterans by granting stipends for tuition and expenses. Its educational provisions paid for millions of Americans to pursue post-secondary degrees and certificates — by the mid-1950s, nearly 8 million veterans received some form of postsecondary education or training. 

For many essential employees, including warehouse workers for internet retailers, hospital custodial workers and food delivery personnel for restaurants, our modern-day GI Bill should offer stipends for tuition- and fee-free post-secondary education. We could even offer those in school a living stipend, a subsistence allowance, just like the original GI Bill. For other essential employees, who already invested greatly in post-secondary education, we ought to relieve them of the additional stresses of paying back hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. This provision mirrors legislation recently proposed in Congress

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Beyond the psychological and physical toll of caring for the deathly ill and seeing patients suffer alone, doctors and nurses are hurting financially. Inequality works its way well up into the ranks of young doctors who had to take out substantial medical school loans, which they accumulate in personal sacrifice to serve us in this time of need. We have an ethical obligation to forgive the student debt of the many clinicians, including doctors, nurses and technicians, who face death, day after day, treating COVID-19 patients. Doing so would promote and support their continued efforts to serve our country.

Third, the GI Bill provided unemployment compensation to returning veterans up to a whole year. This benefit, aptly named a readjustment allowance, directly served the GI Bill's readjustment goals. In the near future, once the number of COVID-19 cases begins to subside, thousands of currently employed essential workers will join the millions already relying on unemployment insurance. We should extend current generous unemployment benefits to workers who are currently on the frontlines, protecting them against the economic hardship they will face if they lose their jobs later on.

Fourth, the GI Bill offered low interest-rate mortgages to veterans to purchase a home, business or farm, which helped fund the development of the suburbs and middle class that epitomized the mid-century United States. Today, we should offer a similar program for our essential workers. Politicians concerned about COVID-19's economic damage — in addition to its public health carnage — should be enthusiastic about stimulating the economy, supporting our heroes' efforts to move into a home of their own, and helping them build a small business. 

Fifth, the GI Bill built hospitals to meet the health care needs of returning veterans. Today's COVID-19 crisis has revealed a number of holes in our nation's health care system and disaster preparedness. The modern-day GI Bill could help plug those holes, building up our capacity to respond to future crises. In addition, we must prepare our health care system to provide the psychological care that millions of essential workers will undoubtedly need to cope with post-traumatic stress.

Looking back on our historical efforts to respond to crises provides useful lessons for determining how to proceed in the midst of this one. One of our country's most successful policies (though with troubling racial inequity), the GI Bill should be the standard we use to measure our success in responding to our current war. 

Like Roosevelt and Congress during WWII, we must act today to protect those currently working so hard to protect us. 

Michah W. Rothbart is an assistant professor of Public Administration and International Affairs in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.