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America's 'Welfare State' Still Exists — It Migrated to the US Military

Long in retreat in the US, the welfare state found a haven in an unlikely place – the military, where it thrived for decades

While US cities declare bankruptcy and the numbers of homeless increase, the US military has unlimited amounts of
cash to waste on aircraft like the F35 — A half trillion dollar piece of garbage that can't even out perform aircraft a generation older.

By Jennifer Mittelstadt
Over the past four decades in the United States, as the country has slashed its welfare state and employers gutted traditional job benefits, growing numbers of people, especially from the working class, grasped for a new safety net – the military. Everyone recognises that the US armed forces have become a global colossus. But few know that, along with bases and bombs, the US military constructed its own massive welfare state. In the waning decades of the 20th century, with US prosperity in decline, more than 10 million active‑duty personnel and their tens of millions of family members turned to the military for economic and social security.
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The military welfare state is hidden in plain sight, its welfare function camouflaged by its war-making auspices. Only the richest Americans could hope to access a more systematic welfare network. Military social welfare features a web of near-universal coverage for soldiers and their families – housing, healthcare, childcare, family counselling, legal assistance, education benefits, and more. The programmes constitute a multi-billion-dollar-per-year safety net, at times accounting for nearly 50 per cent of the Department of Defense budget (DoD). Their real costs spread over several divisions of the defence budget creating a system so vast that the DoD acknowledged it could not accurately reckon its total expense.

Most Americans would not imagine that the military welfare state has anything to do with them. After all, in the era since the end of the draft and the advent of the all-volunteer force, military service has become the province of the few: just 0.5 per cent of Americans now serve in the armed forces.

But the history of the military welfare state tells us a great deal about citizenship and welfare. Its rise correlated with and, in some instances, caused the decline of the civilian welfare state, creating a diverging and unequal set of entitlements. And the recent transformation of the military welfare state – a massive privatisation and outsourcing – signals an even more dangerous future for the civilian welfare state.

The US military has always performed social welfare of some kind or another. Over its long history, it provided daily support to its conscripts – food, shelter, clothing and medical care – and more elaborate benefits such as homes, family support and clubs for the career force and officers. The military also rewarded citizen conscripts for their faithful service during wartime. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army offered veterans land or a cash bounty. After the Civil War, the military offered veterans pensions. And after the Second World War, millions of former service personnel were guaranteed unprecedented education, training and housing subsidies.

Military leaders embarked on a new and more ambitious social welfare programme after 1973. That year, President Richard Nixon and Congress ended the draft and mandated an all-volunteer force. Military leaders could no longer force citizens to join – they had to convince them. And one of their most vital tools was social welfare benefits.

Unlike European countries that provided nearly universal social welfare to all citizens, the US had only a patchwork social welfare system consisting of various public and private safety nets. Military leaders stepped into the gaps between them. They decided, in the words of the army motto, ‘to take care of their own’. They expanded the benefits traditionally reserved for the relatively few members of the career force and officers to every single member of the volunteer force and his or her family.

This post-1973 military welfare state played a different role in US life than most earlier types of military welfare. For one, military welfare no longer served as a reward for the services of citizen soldiers. Instead, it sustained the volunteer force: it lured new recruits, supported them while on duty, and convinced them to re‑enlist.

The military welfare state post-1973 never stimulated social welfare for the populace: quite the opposite

More importantly, earlier versions of military welfare catalysed broader social welfare programmes for the US populace. Civil War pensions pioneered federal retirement and disability payments, and paved the way for civilian retirement pensions. Veterans’ healthcare after the First World War created the first model of government health provision. And the Second World War-era GI Bill vaulted millions of former civilian draftees and their families into the middle class, legitimising government support for education and housing for all Americans.

The modern military welfare state of the post-1973 era never stimulated social welfare for the populace. Quite the opposite. As a smaller number and narrower cross-section of Americans volunteered for military service in the late 20th century, the divide between the military and civilians grew. So, too, did the divide between the new military welfare state and the existing civilian one. From the 1970s to the early ’90s, while many civilian welfare programmes contracted, public and private unions declined, and employers cut private employment benefits, the military expanded its welfare functions.

How did this happen?

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