Unemployment and Earnings of Veterans

Unemployment and Earnings of Veterans

Post-9/11 veterans enlisted knowing that they would likely see active duty, and many of them did: since 9/11, more than 2.2 million Americans have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Unfortunately, our nation has not rewarded their service with economic opportunity and stability. In fact, the opposite is true. The weak economy and the lasting mental and physical effects of combat service have left today’s young vets in a deeply troubling economic condition.

  • The unemployment rate for Gulf War-era II veterans aged 18 to 24 was 20.9 percent in 2010—3.6 percentage points higher than the unemployment rate for all 18 to 24 year-olds, and over 11 percentage points higher than the unemployment rate for the general population in 2010 (Figure 1.b).
  • Those young veterans fortunate enough to have jobs earn on average close to the median wages for young people as a whole: veterans aged 18 to 24 earned on average $1,200 less per year than the median 18 to 24 year-old, while veterans aged 25 to 34 earned $5,000 more (Figure 1.b).
A confluence of factors seems to drive this high unemployment rate: the prevalence and stigma of mental health disorders, difficulties transitioning into civilian work, a bad economy, and experience in struggling sectors.
 
Mental health disorders are common among veterans returning from active duty. Surveys show that employers see these mental health issues as a challenge in hiring veterans, and soldiers who have mental health problems recognize this—one in three worry about the effect it could have on their career. Surveys also show that veterans struggle to translate their unique skills to today’s job climate, and employers often do not have a complete understanding of the qualifications they offer. Moreover, veterans were often working in areas with declining labor trends that were then hit hard by the recession, such as manufacturing.
 
It is not all bad news. The GI Bill of Rights had lost much of its purchasing power until it was recently expanded to cover state tuition, provide grants for apprenticeship and training programs, and transfer benefits to family members. The additional aid should help this generation of veterans to attain the skills needed for civilian work. Whether it will help them over other steep economic hurdles remains to be seen.