Veteran Poverty by the Numbers

Vets Will Face Increased Challenges if Support Programs Are Cut

Kevin Hawryluk and Abigail Ridley-Kerr write that veterans have much at stake in this year’s budget debates.

A Vietnam-era veteran leans against a bunk at a homeless shelter for veterans in San Diego. Nearly 1 in 7 homeless adults are veterans as of December 2011.  (AP/Lenny Ignelzi)
A Vietnam-era veteran leans against a bunk at a homeless shelter for veterans in San Diego. Nearly 1 in 7 homeless adults are veterans as of December 2011.  (AP/Lenny Ignelzi)

Almon’s story

Unable to afford market-value housing, Almon, a veteran, battled poverty and homelessness for years. Unfortunately, thousands of American veterans share similar stories. They end up struggling to make ends meet in the face of a poor job market and high housing costs. What’s more, many face ongoing challenges due to mental and physical disabilities.

Fortunately, Almon received a housing voucher—which helped him get an apartment—and a case worker to help with his mental health issues. This transformative voucher gave Almon the stability he needed to build a better life for his family—or, as he puts it, “When you have a key that you can put in the door, that gives you a chance to control your destiny.”

With the end of the war in Iraq and the involvement in Afghanistan winding down, the United States can expect to see about 100,000 veterans return home. Many will need help and support from safety net programs or job training to transition to civilian life, but that help isn’t guaranteed to be there.

That’s because this past fall the congressional “super committee” charged with developing a plan to reduce the deficit did not come to an agreement. As a result, if Congress fails to act, automatic cuts will be triggered in January 2013 to both nonwar defense spending and domestic discretionary spending, including many human needs programs that provide greater opportunity to veterans and nonveterans alike.

Already policymakers are pushing to exempt the cuts to defense spending and to take revenues off the table—steps that would place more of the burden on programs that serve vets, cut poverty, and rebuild the middle class.

Clearly our veterans have a lot at stake this year in the debates over the deficit and budget cuts. Here is a by-the-numbers look at some of the challenges veterans face, the support they get, and what’s at risk in these important policy debates.

Veterans are disproportionately homeless

  • Nearly one in seven homeless adults are veterans, as of December 2011.
  • More than 67,000 homeless veterans were counted on a given January night in America last year. More than 4 in 10 homeless veterans were found unsheltered.
  • Almost half of homeless veterans were African American in 2008 despite the fact that only 11 percent of veterans overall are African American.
  • 1.5 million veterans are at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.

Many veterans have trouble finding good jobs

  • 30.2 percent of veterans ages 18 to 24 were unemployed according to unpublished 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
  • Nearly 1 in 10 veterans with disabilities were not employed in 2010.
  • According to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a 2007 survey showed that more than one-third of employers were unaware of protections they must provide to service members, and more than half spent less than 2 percent of their recruitment budget on military advertising and/or did not understand the qualifications of military service.
  • In that same survey more than half of all veterans were unsure of how to professionally network, and nearly three in four felt unprepared to negotiate salary and benefits and/or unable to effectively translate military skills.
  • More than 968,000 of veterans ages 18 to 64 had been in poverty in the past year in 2010.

The safety net provides veterans with critical food, heat, and health assistance

  • More than 33,000 veterans were housed since 2009 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs in permanent, supportive housing with case managers and access to VA health care.
  • Through its Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program, the Veterans Administration provided a wide range of career services, including counseling and training, to more than 116,000 veterans with service-connected disabilities in fiscal year 2011.
  • $31 million of SNAP/food stamps funding in 2008 was spent at military commissaries to help feed military members and their families who struggle against hunger.
  • A veteran lives in one in five households benefiting from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides heating and cooling assistance.
  • 1.2 million veterans used mental health services in 2010.

In order to support our veterans, policymakers must act to create jobs and protect the safety net from cuts to programs such as veteran housing and employment services, SNAP/food stamps, and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. These programs and other services help struggling veterans and nonveterans alike get back on their feet. America must continue to honor and protect those who defend us by providing the support and resources necessary to help them find stability and opportunity.

As Almon said, “There’s going to be other veterans coming home in the future. They need the same opportunity that I had.” (see sidebar)

Kevin Hawryluk is an intern with the Half in Ten campaign at the Center for American Progress. Abigail Ridley-Kerr is an intern with the Progress 2050 department of the Center for American Progress.

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