As Bob Dole's generation eases into retirement, commentators of various stripes complain loudly about generational bias in American social policy. The fiscally conservative Concord Coalition--along with independent presidential contenders Ross Perot and Richard Lamm--complains that working-age taxpayers have to cover the costs of overly generous social programs for America's elderly. The Children's Defense Fund calls upon Americans to "stand for children," marshaling facts and figures to show that the nation invests way too little to help poor children and young families. Antigovernment Republicans arrayed behind Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and John Kasich assert that we must cut way back on federal government spending for the poor and the elderly in order to preserve the American dream for "our children and grandchildren."
Each of these proponents of generational equity is speaking to a gaping "missing middle" in U.S. social policy. In recent decades, very little has been done through the federal government to help young adults and their children. The United States has no inclusive system of family allowances or benefits. Retired elderly Americans are eligible for relatively generous benefits through Social Security and Medicare, and very poor, mother-headed families may get Medicaid, food stamps, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Most working-age Americans, however, relate to the federal government as taxpayers, not as participants in broad social programs. Many do not even have health insurance coverage.
But working-age Americans could be beneficiaries, too--and not so long ago they were. For a time after World War II, U.S. federal social provision was much more balanced across the life cycle, largely due to the GI Bill, first enacted in 1944. Comprehensive individual and family benefits were made available to about 16 million World War II veterans; subsequent "little GI Bills" following the wars in Korea and Vietnam extended similar, though less generous, benefits to later cohorts of former military enlistees. All in all, the GI Bill added up to a major federal social policy in the postwar era.
Though the nature and value of the GI Bill's contributions to American social provision have generally been forgotten, Bill Clinton remains clearly fascinated by the 1944 precedent. In April 1995, as the new Republican congressional majority basked in what it claimed was a mandate to reverse key legacies of the New Deal, Clinton gave a speech at FDR's Warm Springs retreat. The GI Bill, Clinton said, was Roosevelt's "most enduring legacy" because it "gave generations of veterans a chance to get an education, to build strong families and good lives and to build the nation's strongest economy ever, to change the face of America."
No question, the accomplishments of this legislation resonate strongly today. Its best elements may well be worth "reinventing." But Bill Clinton, despite his obvious reverence for the GI Bill, may not yet have found the best way to recreate its scope and spirit for a new era.
BREAKING THE MOLD
Millions of Americans worry about getting the training and education they need to compete for good jobs in a national economy increasingly unforgiving toward the less formally educated and those without up-to-date skills. Against this backdrop it is easy to understand Clinton's nostalgia for the GI Bill. Through this law some $14.5 billion federal dollars were spent between 1944 and 1956 to help just over half of the returning World War II veterans (some 7.8 million people) obtain vocational training or higher education, preparing them for occupations ranging from skilled industrial trades to engineering, medicine, law, and business.
Unlike previous federal expenditures on education--such as the Morrill Act of 1862, which subsidized land-grant colleges--benefits under the GI Bill flowed directly to individuals in the form of grants for tuition, supplies, and living expenses. …