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Empower the VA with the tools to help our veterans

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U.S. service members stand beneath the U.S. flag in this Jan. 17, 2019, file photo.

As is often the case, public perception and reality do not often match up when it comes to national conversations about veterans.

Despite the fact that the “broken veteran” narrative often persists in portrayals of veterans in the news and in the media, veterans are often our most valuable citizens. 

And, a new study proves just that: according to University of Akron professors Dr. Francesco Renna and Dr. Amanda Weinstein, military veterans earn higher wages than their non-veteran peers across the U.S. —including hourly wages nearly $5 an hour higher than those of non-veterans. 

This study correlates previous findings showing that, although the transition from active duty to civilian status may be accompanied by transition stress for some veterans, once veterans do find employment, they tend to succeed.

The latest study, entitled “the veteran wage differential,” studied the average wages of veterans and non-veterans from 2005 to 2015. Specifically, the study focused on factors such as education, occupation and location choice.

However, despite veteran’s economic success, the study also found that veterans should be outperforming their non-veteran peers by an even larger margin and, as a result, we have more to do in terms of embracing the perception of the successful, rather than the broken veteran. 

To this end, Renna and Weinstein found that in higher socioeconomic careers, an unexplained decrease, dubbed a “veteran penalty” occurred. The authors stated that this could possibly be due to “a stigma associated with military service that manifests as discrimination in the labor market especially among veterans that enter into higher socioeconomic careers.”

For stakeholders and advocates, there is a delicate balancing act that must be performed between taking care of our most vulnerable veterans, i.e., those at risk for suicide, and promoting economic opportunity for veterans. 

One such idea that should seriously be considered in our efforts to allow veterans the opportunity to pursue their full economic potential is the passage of H.R. 5644, the Veterans’ Education, Transition, and Opportunity Prioritization Plan Act of 2018 (VET OPP Act). 

The legislation, which has already passed the House as part of a larger omnibus bill, would establish a separate administration within the VA to handle Economic Opportunity and Transition assistance programs. 

According to Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.), one of the the bill’s original sponsors: “As Chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Economic Opportunity Subcommittee, one of my top priorities is ensuring that veterans are receiving their benefits as efficiently as possible, and it is clear that the current structure at the VA isn’t meeting this need.”

Levin’s argument was further summarized at a recent legislative hearing on the topic by Rebecca Burgess, Program Manager for the AEI Citizenship Project in April 2019: 

“The VA has expanded haphazardly due to political pressures for more than a century, to deliver financial benefits or pensions to veterans, calculated from the premise that the injured veteran will never enter the economy again. Despite broad innovations that have shifted the economy from its 1917 Industrial Age model to its current information age model, the VA continues to think in Industrial Age terms about especially injured and disabled veterans.”

Indeed, by elevating programs that emphasize economic opportunity for veterans to the same level (i.e., its own administration within VA), the VET OPP Act can help to further dispel the broken veteran narrative and help veterans to achieve their full earnings potential. 

As I have previously argued, the VA’s current structure of pairing of economic opportunity and disability benefits programs are inherently at odds with one another. Whereas disability compensation is designed to compensate veterans for their inability to work, employment and education programs do just the opposite; they are designed to improve veterans’ knowledge and skill sets so that they may improve their individual economic opportunities.

Although VA has consistently opposed this legislation, the Trump administration has nonetheless consistently promoted the idea of reorganization to strengthen and modernize VA. Reorganization through the creation of a fourth business line therefore not only helps veterans, but is clearly in-line with the president’s stated priorities.

According to Weinstein, one of the study’s authors who is herself an Air Force veteran, “the men and women that I had the opportunity to serve with in the military are highly skilled, dedicated, and hard-working . . . They have a lot to offer the workforce and the data shows that.”

In the 21st century, dedicated and hard-working employees are in high-demand across many industries. Therefore, empowering the VA with the tools required to re-invest in veterans who have the ability to deliver such dedication to their civilian occupation is a win for both veterans and our communities. 

As such, upon return from the August recess, I would strongly encourage the Senate to quickly take up and consider passage of the VET Opp Act. In addition to the legislation already passed by the House, a companion bill has been introduced by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.). 

Doing so will not only help veterans to realize their full economic potential as highlighted by the veteran wage differential study, but will also help us to finally overcome the inaccurate and unnecessary broken veteran narrative that so often dominates conversations about our nation’s veterans.

Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.

Tags Jeff Miller Maggie Hassan Marco Rubio Mike Levin veteran affairs Veterans

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