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The Declining Military-Welfare State

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Republicans and neoliberals working in both parties have decimated or wants to decimate much of the American welfare state. But there are exceptions. No one is taking corn subsidies away from Iowa farmers. But they are even going after military benefits, once a cornerstone of the American welfare state. Jennifer Mittelstadt summarizes her new book on the topic at Aeon:

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.

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 history is that the Nixon-era military had to create these welfare programs in order to attract people into the all-volunteer military. Reagan was fine was this too and expanded it. But by the late 80s, free-market fundamentalists started attacking the generous benefits the military gave out. Shrinking defense budgets after the end of the Cold War then encouraged cost-cutting and the privatization of public services for soldiers. Bill Clinton really embraced this and the continued privatization today is a really bad thing, meaning that profiteering corporations are seeking pieces of the pie that often, say, charge soldiers for their own uniforms. We all saw how the role private companies played in the Bush wars of the Middle East and the problems that Blackwater and these other corporations caused. And private companies are involved in the medical and psychological care of ex-soldiers. None of this is good for members of the military, veterans, or the rest of us.

This is a good article and I look forward to reading the book.

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