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"Race, Poverty and the Militarized Welfare State,"

by Bristow Hardin January/February 1999 issue of Poverty & Race

George Bush expressed the views of many when he gushed in the afterglow of the Gulf War that “the US military is the greatest equal opportunity employer around.” And as sociologist Charles Moskos has observed, the armed forces are the only institution in American society where blacks routinely order whites around. But despite the notable benefits African Americans have received from the military services, these are proportionately fewer than those accruing to whites. Beyond that, the various related institutions of the US military apparatus – veterans programs, the Department of Defense (DoD) and related government agencies, and private arms contractors – also have provided far more benefits to whites than blacks since WWII. The sum of these disparate benefits thus has directly fostered and perpetuated racial inequality and poverty. Data from the 1945-85 period, when the impact of military spending on the nation’s economic development, class structure and political alliances was at its height, show this clearly.

The “Militarized Welfare State” (MWS)

Major benefits provided by the MWS include:
Veterans Programs. The G.I. Bill for WWII veterans constituted what is probably the largest and most generous social welfare program in the nation’s history. Its provisions included up to a year of readjustment (unemployment) benefits; education and training benefits, with college aid sufficient to cover tuition, fees, room and board; guaranteed home, farm or business loans; medical and dental care; pensions and compensation; low-cost life insurance; and vocational rehabilitation.

By 1950 over 12.5 million people had benefited from at least one of these programs. In each immediate post-war year, 1946 and 1947, over 1 million vets used G.I. Bill benefits to attend college, and they comprised seven-tenths of males in higher education institutions. By 1950 nearly 2 million had used a G.I. direct or guaranteed loan to buy a home or farm or to set up a business.

This support enabled millions to join the middle class, and many more to enhance or consolidate their middle-class positions. In terms of wealth creation alone, easy access to homeownership enabled these vets to reap the inflated housing market values of the subsequent years, providing savings and equity that in turn solidified their middle-class position and enabled them to pass these wealth-associated benefits on to their children and grandchildren.

Until the 1960s veterans programs were the major, the best, and in some case the only federal programs providing welfare state benefits in key areas. Into the 1980s ex-servicepeople and their dependents had access to comprehensive welfare state benefits that were often better than or unavailable to the rest of the population. Even after the significant expansions of Social Security and the establishment of programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, educational aid, etc., analysts noted that veterans programs were a “parallel” social welfare system but with more generous benefits and eligibility.

Moreover, in contrast to the operations of civilian welfare departments that generally sought to minimize the income and other benefits provided low-income people, analysts noted that the Veterans Administration’s (VA) efforts in the means-tested pension program were “directed more toward ensuring veterans maximum benefits.” Also in contrast to the often punitive and demeaning practices of civilian welfare departments, veterans programs were “administered with due regard to the dignity of the recipients.”

Civilian Employment: DoD, the Armed Services, the Arms Industry. It is a commonplace that military spending constitutes the major federal jobs program. Conservative estimates (including multiplier effects) are that from 1953, when the US’s permanent global military apparatus was being established, through the rest of the 1950s, military spending generated 15%-20% of US jobs; in the1960s the range was between 13% and 17%. In each year during those decades military spending supported at least 9.2 million and as many as 14.3 million jobs. Also, especially after the Korean War through the 1960s, these jobs typically provided security not just to individual workers, but rather to entire households.

These generally are well-paying jobs with lots of employment-related benefits, e.g., health care, insurance, pension plans, access to quality housing. Such benefits have been significantly better than average.

Disparate Benefits for Different Racial Groups

Available data illustrate clearly that throughout the post-WWII era the benefits provided by each and every component of the MWS disproportionately accrued to whites.

Veterans Programs. Jim Crow and related overt exclusionary policies ensured that African Americans’ proportion of WWII veterans (6.9%) was significantly less than their portion of the total population (about 10%). In the Korean War veterans population they were nearly as underrepresented. This underrepresentation alone caused African Americans to receive far fewer benefits than whites from the first G.I. Bills. African Americans’ inability to capitalize on these and subsequent veterans programs was exacerbated by additional factors that were products of current or past discriminatory practices. Thus, not only were far fewer blacks than whites able to participate in these programs, but those blacks who could participate received fewer benefits than their white counterparts.

Studies revealed that whites were far more likely than blacks to obtain college aid, while blacks were more likely to obtain training and vocational rehabilitation services. While this would be expected, given blacks’ lower average educational levels, these variances had critical short- and long-term consequences. Not only was aid for higher education more generous than that for training and vocational rehab services, but higher education obviously generated much higher economic returns.

Similarly, by the early 1960s only 19% of blacks vs. 30% of whites had obtained G.I. life insurance, and only 14% of blacks versus 35% of whites had gotten a VA home, farm or business loan. These variances might be expected, given blacks’ lower incomes and hence greater difficulty in making regular payments. Nonetheless, they reveal starkly that blacks were far less able than whites to provide security for the families in the event of their untimely death, and that they were far less able to obtain the loans that could prove instrumental in attaining or enhancing economic success and wealth.

African Americans were twice as likely as whites to take advantage of VA hospitalization services, however. This was a function of the respective groups’ alternatives: whites’ higher incomes enabled them to use other hospitals, where, with the exception of facilities in the inner cities or extreme rural areas, the quality of care was generally recognized as superior to that provided in veterans hospitals.

Civilian Employment: The federal government has been a major source of jobs for African Americans since WWII, especially since the 1960s. From 1965 to 1980 their portion of the federal civilian workforce increased from 13.5% to 17%. However, their portion of the workforce in the civilian agencies dealing with “current military” (CM) activities — DoD, NASA, and the Atomic Energy Commission/Department of Energy (responsible for nuclear weapons production) — was much lower, going from 11.2% in 1965 to 12.7% in 1980. They comprised a much higher portion of the VA workforce – around 25% in both years.

However, during the 1965-1980 period, African Americans’ portion of other civilian agencies’ workforces was significantly higher than in the CM departments. In 1980, their proportions of the Postal Service’s and the General Services Administration’s workforces were about two and three times greater, respectively. And blacks comprised 24.6% of the combined workforces of what might be called the “social democratic” agencies — the Departments of Labor, HUD, HEW/HHS, Education and smaller related agencies (OEO/CSA, EEOC, and Civil Rights Commission).

Data show that there were significant differences in blacks’ success in ascending the organizational hierarchies in the various sectors. They had far greater success securing positions in the upper echelons of the “social democratic” hierarchies than in the military departments, where they were relegated to the lower strata of both the white-collar and blue-collar categories. In 1980, for example, blacks’ share of jobs in the upper white-collar grades in the “social democratic” sector was more than five times that in the CM sector, and their share of blue-collar supervisors jobs was over four times greater. African Americans’ share of the jobs in upper white-collar grades in the “social democratic” sector was over three times that in the VA, while their share of jobs in the blue-collar supervisor category was 25% higher.

To appreciate the full impact of these disparities, note that the DoD and VA civilian workforces together have been larger than all other civilian agencies combined (excluding the Postal Service).

Private Arms Contractors: Past and continuing racism, combined with the location of the “Gunbelt” (the regions where arms production has been concentrated), severely limited African Americans’ employment in the federally financed arms industry, the major sectors of which are the aerospace and electronics/communications industries. These relatively meager benefits are illustrated by 1966 and 1985 employment data. In 1966 blacks comprised only 4.3% of the total workforces of these industries. Although this increased to 8.2% by 1985, it was far less than their 12.1% weight in the total US workforce. These limited returns from the nation’s major public works program resulted from three principal factors.

First, the myriad limitations on blacks’ educational opportunities constrained their ability to gain the training and credentials essential for the scientific-managerial jobs that are the leading occupational categories in the arms sector. In 1966 officials and managers, professionals and technicians comprised 40% of the workforces in both the aerospace and electronics and communications industries; by 1985 that proportion had risen to at least 45%. Blacks were certain to obtain relatively meager employment benefits from this largesse since they comprised only 5.7% of these job categories in 1970 and 10.7% in 1985.

Second, educational constraints and the racist practices of craft unions blocked African Americans’ entry into the craft and metal trades that are the arms industry’s most economically rewarding blue-collar jobs. Most notably, the International Association of Machinists, the leading metals workers union and the union with the most members in the arms industries, was renowned for its discriminatory practices well into the 1970s. As a result of this and related factors, as late as 1970 blacks comprised only 5.6% of those classified as craftsworkers.

Finally, as the Gunbelt developed, the African American population increased markedly in the very states whose share of military spending – and the economic stimulus and jobs it provided – was plummeting. Specifically, between 1940 and 1980 the black population increased markedly in the “rust belt” states of New York (+321%), New Jersey (+307%), Pennsylvania (+123%), Ohio (+217%), Michigan (+476%) and Illinois (+609%), states which had contained major centers of armaments production during WWII. As the post-war Gunbelt developed, these states’ share of the DoD’s prime contracts and military and civilian payrolls fell sharply. From 1951 to 1983, the share of DOD prime contract awards going to five of these states fell at least 56% and as much as 82%.

The deleterious effects private arms spending has had for African Americans are further highlighted by contrasting workforce data for the major arms industries (aerospace and electronics/communications) and the major rust belt industries (basic steel and autos). In contrast to their limited employment inroads into the arms industry, blacks made significant gains in the auto and steel industries, comprising 13.3% of their total workforces in 1966 and 14.9% in 1985. The returns from these hard-won gains were significantly limited, however, since the total number of jobs in these industries fell from 1.5 million to 1.2 million between 1966 and 1985, while the number of jobs in the arms industries increased from 1.6 million to 2.1 million.

The Armed Services. While the uniformed services are regarded by many as the major institution where blacks have made their greatest advances in American society (perhaps the most compelling indicator of this is that African Americans’ rates of enlistment and re-enlistment in the uniformed services consistently have exceeded those of whites’), this opportunity must be assessed in the context of the marked lack of viable employment opportunities available to blacks in civilian life. Because of this, blacks’ high rates of entry and retention in the armed forces can be seen as a form of economic conscription. Moreover, the returns from their service seem significantly less than those accruing to whites.

Several points are worth noting. First, the percentage of blacks in the services was not proportional to their numbers in the population until the early seventies. It peaked at 18.6% in 1981, after which the share of white enlistees increased because of the combination of bad economic conditions, improved compensation and recruitment policy changes. Second, the proportion of blacks in the Army has always been higher than that in the other services, due to lower entrance standards (set to allow for the Army’s higher casualty rates). Third, the percentage of black officers has consistently been lower than their numbers in the services would seem to warrant. In 1985, when the percent of black officers was at its highest to that point, 18.9% of total personnel but only 6.4% of officers were black. Fourth, black officers and enlisted personnel alike have consistently been concentrated in the lower echelons. African Americans were 6.4% of all officers but only 2.6% of those in the upper grades in 1985. This portion had been unchanged since the late 1970s. Likewise, blacks comprised 21% of all enlisted personnel in 1985 but only 16.3% of those in upper grades (down from 17.2% in 1983). Studies from the late 1960s to the early 1980s revealed that blacks were not promoted as fast as whites, even controlling for Armed Forces Qualifying Test scores. Finally, black officers and enlisted personnel have been systematically concentrated in the least desirable occupational categories. (Again, this occurred even when controlling for AFQT scores.) This inhibits their opportunities for advancement, equips them with fewer skills that are valuable in the civilian labor market, and increases the likelihood they will be a combat casualty.


The foregoing analysis demonstrates that African Americans have obtained far fewer benefits than whites from each and every component of the Militarized Welfare State. Thus, the post-war military apparatus and the MWS it funds have been major mechanisms through which racial inequality and poverty have been perpetuated since WWII.

The answer to the “so what?” question seems clear. That is, as many have long argued, a necessary but not sufficient condition for diminishing racial inequality and poverty is the dismantling of the military state. This is essential not just because military spending diverts resources from human needs, but because it directly reproduces the racial inequalities that are fundamental causes of poverty.

The answer to the “what is to be done?” question seems no less clear. Those working for social and economic justice must re-examine the reasoning and structures that have fragmented progressive forces into a variety of single-issue groups. Part of this re-examination must be a better understanding of how unnecessary military spending is fueled not merely by “national security” concerns (however they are defined) or a “military industrial complex” but rather a racialized military welfare state as well. Social and economic justice groups must develop strategies to overcome their compartmentalization so they can fight both single-issue and broad-based battles.

Bristow Hardin is Director of the Center for Public Policy of The Union Institute, a Cincinnati-headquartered university (1710 Rhode Island Ave. NW, Wash., DC 20036, 202/496-1630).

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