Fifties Facts          


The GI Bill


By David Bellm

The 1950's were a period of economic growth and general prosperity that's been rivaled by few other times in America's history. Considered by most Americans to be a rare utopia in many respects, the 1950's managed to repeatedly defy expectations and confound experts who predicted a far different, less hopeful picture of the immediate postwar future for mainstream Americans.

Indeed, the case certainly could have been made for a gloomy forecast for the 1950's. Just five years earlier, millions of people were returning from around the world, having been kept out of the American economy by serving in the nation's military. Once the job of defeating America's enemies was finished, that throng of young men and women were abruptly cast into the workforce at once, many of them for the very first time.

Such an influx clearly could have had a devastating effect on the nation, with a glut of workers flooding the economy right as industry would be massively downsizing at the completion of its mission to equip America's war machine.

Fortunately, this impending crisis wasn't lost on then President Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1944 signed into being the Serviceman's Readjustment Act, which immediately became known as the GI Bill.

Intended as a means of thanking World War II servicemen for their sacrifices as well as preventing a massive drain on the nation's economy, the GI Bill included generous provisions to fund education for returning servicemen, and offered them low-interest loans for buying a house or starting a business.

Also offered in the GI Bill was a year's worth of unemployment insurance. But with so many ex-servicemen taking advantage of the education funding and business loans, the unemployment insurance found relatively few takers; only about 20-percent of the provision's funding was ever used.

The effect of the GI Bill in shaping American society in the 1950's can't be understated. For one thing, its benefits extended to all military personnel who served during the war -- including women and minorities. This served to unify American social and economic classes to a degree that hadn't been seen throughout much of the U.S.

With the GI Bill's universally provided advantages, poor Southern farm boys who had served in the war were now going to college alongside upper-middle-class students in the North. Likewise, veterans originating from the gamut of economic classes were buying homes and becoming neighbors in the countless instant subdivisions that were sprouting up throughout the nation.

In many cases, these new communities were largely paid for with money from the GI Bill, with 11 million of 13 million new homes financed with loans from the program. And with that, the postwar housing shortage quickly turned into a construction boom.

What's more, the ongoing needs of those communities were largely served by businesses financed by the GI Bill. The program made business owners out of young men who just a few years earlier were mere boys, crawling and fighting through jungle mud, or battling attacks in frigid-cold bombers flying high over Europe. Without the GI Bill, there's a very good chance they wouldn't have been able to make the transition so smoothly.

Adding further luster to this tremendously successful program, the GI Bill proved to be largely self-funding. Much of the cost of providing the legislation's sweeping benefits were financed by income tax pouring into federal coffers from the throng of newly educated veterans joining the workforce.

So who says government programs never work? The proof remains all over America even today, with the benefits of the GI Bill still evident all around us.

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