Boosting VA funding is not enough to support veterans

Boosting VA funding is not enough to support veterans
© iStock

Trump’s proposed 2021 budget includes another significant increase for the Department of Veterans Affairs: a 13 percent increase to $90 billion for medical services, another $19.5 billion in other discretionary spending, and $134 billion in mandatory funding for veteran benefits. It’s one of only a handful of agencies with proposed bumps; the others are NASA, Homeland Security, Treasury, and Defense — but none see such significant boosts. Conversely, all other departments have proposed cuts, from a 2 percent cut for Justice to a 37 percent cut for Commerce.

Does this signify Trump supports veterans? Hardly.

We do not transition out of the military and live in veteran-exclusive bubbles. Let’s take a look at some of the ways veterans — along with our fellow Americans — stand to be harmed by these slashes.

  • Agriculture: The 2021 budget proposes major cuts in food assistance for millions. Among those expected to be hit hard by the cuts are the elderly and people with disabilities. VA estimates that in 2017, 53 percent of male veterans were over age 65 and over 20 percent of veterans had a service-connected disability; 6.4 percent of male veterans and 9.4 percent of female veterans lived in poverty. Additionally, 5.8 percent of male veterans and 11.3 percent of female veterans lived in households that receive SNAP, which equates to over 1 million veterans who now could face greater food insecurity (the monthly per-person benefit of about $127/month doesn’t go far).    

  • Energy: Trump’s proposed 2021 budget cuts DOE by 8 percent; it eliminates clean energy projects and invests in coal. Veterans breathe the same air and live in the same climate as all other Americans.

  • Health and Human Services: The 2021 budget proposal cuts HHS by 9 percent, including a 16 percent reduction for the CDC and significant cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. Of course, veterans and their families also benefit from the CDC’s disease prevention and health promotion activities targeting all Americans. Importantly, not all veterans use VA health care; of those who do, more than half report both VA and Medicare coverage. Additionally, an estimated 1.75 million veterans rely on Medicaid.

  • Labor: The Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service budget is basically flat under Trump’s 2021 budget proposal — but given inflation and rising costs of living, that means the same dollars spent on State Grants, the Transition Assistance Program, Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program, and National Veterans’ Employment and Training Service Institute won’t go quite as far. The proposed budget also completely eliminates the Indian and Native American Program, though unemployment in this population remains stubbornly high, including among veterans. The budget would also completely eliminate the Senior Community Service Employment Program, a program that gave employment opportunities to lower income older Americans — and gave enrollment priority to both veterans and their spouses.

  • Interior: Trump’s 2021 budget proposal cuts the DOI budget by 13 percent, including reductions in funds to acquire land for conservation — lands that could potentially be used for free by disabled veterans, who get a lifetime access pass to National Parks and recreation sites nationwide. The proposed budget also cuts funding to programs designed to help Native American tribes; Native Americans have some of the highest rates of service, but face greater challenges than veterans of other races.

  • EPA: The proposed 2021 budget cuts the EPA budget by more than 25 percent, including reductions in programs designed to improve air quality, provide for clean and safe water, revitalize land and prevent contamination. Veterans breathe air, drink water, and live on land — just like other Americans. The proposed significant cuts to the Superfund program are particularly concerning, since over 130 U.S. military sites are listed as Superfund Priorities: servicemembers (tomorrow’s veterans) and their families are being exposed to toxins.

  • NEH and NEA: Trump’s proposed 2021 budget would defund the National Endowment for the Arts, home of the Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, a collaborative effort with DOD, VA, and state and local arts agencies to provide creative art therapy to troops and vets with traumatic brain injuries and mental health disorders as well as their families. It would also eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities, which provides grants to promote understanding of the military experience and support retuning veterans through the Standing Together: The Humanities and the Experience of War.

  • Libraries: The 2021 budget proposal eliminates federal funding for libraries, which actively seek ways to help and honor veterans, such as by training librarians to assist veterans with services.

Given the fate of Trump’s previous budget proposals, perhaps there is no need to be concerned: many consider the 2021 budget to be “dead on arrival” in Congress.

However, based on news headlines alone, some may believe that this administration obviously must support veterans based on the proposed boosts to VA alone.

VA’s budget has been climbing dramatically for years as the costs of our wars come home to roost, though (it nearly doubled under Obama). And as I’ve shown, simply funneling more money to VA while simultaneously taking an ax to the myriad other agencies across the government that also provide vital services and support to veterans is a hollow show of support.

Kayla Williams is a senior fellow and director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. She previously served two years as director of the Center for Women Veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs, serving as primary adviser to the secretary on policies, programs and legislation affecting women veterans. Prior to that, she worked at the RAND Corporation, where she did research related to veteran health needs and benefits, international security and intelligence policy. She is the author of “Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army,” a memoir of her deployment to Iraq.