In 1977, a newly inaugurated President Jimmy Carter sought to give Vietnam veterans a helping hand in a sluggish job market. Working with Congress, he developed the Help through Industry Retraining and Employment (HIRE) Act to provide training and job placement for vets.
Alas, the best laid plans . . . Later that year, a New York Times report detailed how the program was “very slow getting off the ground and appears to have had little effect on the high rate of joblessness among veterans.” From the time of Carter’s inauguration to the night he lost the next election, unemployment numbers for the youngest Vietnam veterans had risen by four points. High unemployment rates for veterans persisted, despite the government’s best efforts to spark hiring.
That 35-year-old precedent is worth recalling in light of the Senate’s recent attempt to pass another initiative to encourage the hiring of veterans. Based on the record, it’s clear that vets would be better served if the president and Congress dispensed with these narrowly targeted efforts and focused on implementing broader pro-growth policies to get the economy moving again.
The problem is clear: The jobless rate for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan is unacceptably high at 10.9 percent, compared with just over 8 percent for the general population. For younger veterans, the picture is even darker. The unemployment rate for veterans aged 24 and below was a staggering 21.9 percent in the second quarter of this year. There’s no shortage of news reports telling of the sad fate of hundreds of thousands of vets who are frustrated and disheartened at being shut out of the work force.
Last week, the U.S. Senate debated a bill to create a Veterans Jobs Corps aimed at spurring the hiring of military personnel in law enforcement, firefighting, and conservation jobs. That might sound like a good idea, until you realize the government has in recent years repeatedly launched such initiatives, none of which has delivered on its lofty promises.
In terms of bringing down the jobless rate, it’s unlikely the Veterans Job Corps will be any more effective than was the “Vow to Hire Heroes Act of 2011.” Or the Department of Labor’s “My Next Move for Veterans” program. Or the Department of Defense’s “Heroes 2 Hired” program. Or the White House’s “Joining Forces” program. Or any of the unprecedented array of jobs programs, hiring preferences, targeted tax credits, public-private partnerships, hiring fairs, and public-awareness efforts aimed at getting veterans into the work force. Despite all these ballyhooed initiatives, the unemployment rate for veterans remains stubbornly high.
I believe most of these efforts to be well intended, and as a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I hesitate to question the motives of our elected representatives in presenting these measures. But it’s past time we own up to an uncomfortable truth: Like Carter’s 1977 HIRE Act, these government-led efforts to spark veterans’ hiring are falling far short of their intentions.
Furthermore, even if hiring picks up, more veterans will be seeking to enter the private-sector work force as the war in Afghanistan draws down, and as planned cuts in defense spending lead to downsizing of the military. In April, a Pentagon official testified that the U.S. Army could see layoffs of up to 24,000 enlisted personnel and perhaps 5,000 officers; Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has stated that the U.S. Marine Corps would shrink by some 20,000 Marines.
These developments will almost certainly result in persistently high unemployment as a weak economy struggles to make room for so many displaced service members. The unfortunate reality is that many of these veterans will end up un- or underemployed. Many will grow discouraged and give up looking for work. And too many, frozen out of the economy, will wonder if their honorable service on behalf of this nation was worth the sacrifice.
If history is any guide, bringing down the number of jobless vets will not come through tax gimmicks and yet another round of ineffectual government spending. Instead, a commitment to real spending restraint, regulatory reform, and a business-friendly tax climate is a proven way to drive authentic job growth. And those goals can be reached only through the leadership of the president and Congress.
That won’t be easy. In fact, it will be a good deal tougher than creating yet another happy-sounding government initiative that promises, and then fails, to bring down the jobless rate for veterans. But a pro-growth economic agenda is the only way to tackle the very real challenge of high unemployment for veterans — and all Americans.
— Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and the former executive director of Vets for Freedom. He is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard and has served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay.