J Brauer | © Stone Garden Economics
Quick: How many Veterans (former military personnel) are alive today in the United States? Alright, not TODAY, but give me a round-about number, an estimate, your best guess!
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs—and it should know—the answer is about 22.7 million as of Sept. 30, 2010. Since the U.S. population was about 307 million, this would come to 7.4 percent. But wait, only adults qualify. That segment of the population amounted to about 236 million people, so that the Veterans percentage is more on the order of 9.6 percent: one in ten persons of the U.S. adult population has Veterans status. California is home to most Veterans, about 2 million of them. Then follow Texas and Florida, with about 1.7 million each.
These are rather substantial numbers and they imply equally substantial outlays, US$108.6 billion in fiscal year 2010 (which ended on Sept. 30, 2010), the latest numbers available. In terms of federal monies, Justice and International Affairs each had to make due with half that, for example.
Of course, where money is spent, money is also coming back as income. For instance, for my home county of Augusta-Richmond, Georgia, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates a Veterans population of 21,577 with outlays of US$221.2 million. Presumably most of that stays in the county. The immediately neighboring counties of Burke and Columbia add another fifteen thousand Veterans and US$113 million. For the larger metro area around Augusta, GA, this would also include Aiken and Edgefield counties across the Savannah River in South Carolina. So, count another fifteen thousand Veterans and US$86.5 million spent. All this amounts to over 50,000 Veterans, “pulling in” roughly US$420 million for our metro area in FY2010 alone.
Most VA spending is for compensation, pensions, education/rehabilitation, and medical expenses. For example, nation-wide some 3.3 million Veterans receive disability income, some 8.3 million are enrolled in the VA health care system, some 800,000 receive education benefits, and over 450,000 receive compensation related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Incredibly, by September 2010, there still were 69 VA-benefit receiving surviving spouses of Veterans who served in the Spanish-American War—a war that ended in 1902! Even more incredible is that there were still 2 surviving VA-benefit receiving children of Veterans of the American Civil War. (And that war ended in 1865!)
In this big country, numbers rarely are small or without surprise but, still, these numbers are mind-bogglingly large. In fact, to serve its charges, the VA itself keeps over 314,000 employees on its payroll.
Nonetheless, two very important trends will see all these numbers diminish. The first is that the U.S. adult population as a whole is rising; the second is that the Veterans population is shrinking. Consequently, the percentage of Veterans in the overall population will shrink as well, and so will the eventual expense. The reason for the decline in the Veterans population is simply that the large military cohorts of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam are gradually dying of old age and that since the end of the Cold War, U.S. active and reserve forces have shrunk drastically in size, the Persian Gulf adventures of the 1990s and 2000s notwithstanding. The VA thus projects that by the year 2036 there will be fewer than 15 million Veterans.
But surely the greatest cost of all is the 1.2 million service men and women who have died, and the further 1.4 million who have been wounded, in all the U.S. wars between 1775 and 1991 (and the many thousands since then). War is costly, and on this Veterans Day it is time, once more, to reflect with care on the balance between “sad necessity” and “folly” regarding the battles this nation wishes to take on.
J Brauer is Professor of Economics, James M. Hull College of Business, Augusta State University, Augusta, Georgia, USA.