GI Bill, Historic Bargain

THE GI Bill of Rights - signed into law 50 years ago this week under the title of Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 - was granted to a politically innocent generation that did not demand rights the way subsequent, more-assertive generations now know what is owed them.

The soldiers who shed their uniforms just as fast as they could at the end of World War II did not ask what their country could do for them, to quote half of a famous phrase that would be spoken by a wartime PT- boat skipper as he graduated to being president of the United States.

One of the provisions of the GI Bill offered a year's worth of unemployment insurance at $20 per week. Critics predicted at the time that this benefit would make veterans lazy. In practice, only 1 out of 10 of those eligible took full advantage of what was dubbed the 52-20 Club (52 weeks, $20 per week). Recipients averaged only 18 weeks of payments.

What more than half of the veterans did sign on to - some 7.8 million in all - was the promise of up to four years of federal aid for education or on-the-job training. In 1947, almost half of all students enrolled in colleges and universities were veterans. The carefree, privileged American campus infiltrated by these older, totally focused students would never be quite the same again.

GIs who dreamed of being their own bosses as they were ordered about by sergeants and petty officers took out business loans under the bill. The postwar American landscape became dotted with signs reading GI Taxi, GI Diner, GI Laundromat. And around 700,000 veterans learned farming, subsidized by the GI Bill.

By the time the program phased out on schedule in July 1956, the total cost had reached a modest $14.5 billion.

Of that amount, only 5 cents out of every dollar was spent on administrative costs - Washington bureaucrats of the 1990s, take note.

The benefits of the GI Bill in terms of a trained and educated citizenry cannot be calculated in dollars and cents. It proved to be a domestic investment as ingenious and as enlightened as the Marshall Plan on the international scene. Perhaps rightly has it been called ``the act that changed America'' and described as ``not a handout, but a hand up.''

For those who reappraise it, the GI Bill must seem now what it seemed to GIs then - one of history's great bargains.

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