The Issue of Poverty Among Aging Veterans
Becoming a veteran means having to put your life on the line for your country. It comes with sacrifice, fear, and unfortunately sometimes mental illness. Many of the veterans returning home are faced with the harsh reality of unemployment due to many factors, including mental illness and disabilities. The idea of veterans coming home and having to rely on food stamps or the possibility of living on the streets is simply unimaginable. It isn’t possible to explain why some veteran live in poverty while other ones do not. Just like society itself, the reasons depend on the specific situation, but many veterans either don’t understand that there is assistance for them or, for one reason or another, do not seek out such assistance. There seems to be a never ending cycle happening right under our noses and there is very little done to try and stop it. While disabilities account for some of the poverty, emotional and psychological problems account for others. The stigma of asking for “hand-outs” is also a contributing factor that many veterans deal with. For many, the military is a way out of a life filled with situations like poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, mental health issues, and the possibility of homelessness. Many people see the military as a job that provides basic necessities such housing, regular doctors’ visits, and a guaranteed paycheck. There’s also the possibility of moving up in the ranks and for a chance to pursue higher education. The military is often able to provide people with a path to a better life and many soldiers use it as a chance to better themselves and grow. Unfortunately, not all of them are able to maintain this growth and life once they are not no longer in the military.
One of the main and more well-known mental illnesses among veterans is PTSD. Alan V. Horwitz wrote a book, PTSD: A Short History, where he dives into why/how PTSD is still a fairly new diagnose and still being learned about.” It was not until the 1980s that PTSD became a formal diagnosis, in part to recognize the intense psychic suffering of Vietnam War veterans and women with trauma-related personality disorders” (Horwtiz, 2018). Multiple wars across many decades has caused PTSD to become a major issue that many veterans face when returning home. It’s causing veterans to relive and endure the horrors being in war and they are unable to separate reality. And it starts to interfere with their everyday lives and their ability to hold down a job. Mental illnesses can make it impossible for many people to even lead a normal everyday life. People with mental illness are often not able to keep up with things like mortgage payments or maintaining a clean and healthy living environment. Many studies will tell you that like any other mental illness, there’s always a preceded effect and it usually has a lot to do with a person’s economic status and their surroundings. PTSD among people in the military include things such as lower education status, previous emotional events and traumas, substance use, and a family history of mental illness. Prior to joining the military, if a person had mental health issues or a family history of mental illness, they are more likely to develop PTSD. Many of the service members that seek out the military as a way to escape the rigors of everyday life and family, as well often then end up facing the possibility of returning home and developing PTSD because of their family background.
The United States of Veteran Affairs did a study of the demographics of veterans based on gender, age groups, and race/ ethnicity in 2016 titled Profile of Veterans in Poverty. According to this study, veterans have a lower poverty rate than other Americans- 6.9 percent vs 14.4 percent in 2012. The fact that almost 1.5 million veterans live in poverty in the United States is reprehensible. “The veteran poverty rate for male vets between 17 and 34 years old is higher than all other age groups.” (Department of Veterans Affairs, 2016). While the statistics for male vets are highest among that age range, female veterans don’t fall far behind with 13.1% poverty rate. However, female Veterans have a lower poverty rate than female non-Veterans regardless of their race and ethnicity. The difference in poverty rates between female Veterans and women non-Veterans is larger for African Americans and Hispanics. Male Veterans have a lower poverty rate than men non-Veterans regardless of their race and ethnicity. The difference in the poverty rate between male Veterans and men non-Veterans is largest for American Indian or Alaskan Natives and Hispanics. This is a trend that is nothing new for veterans. Many Native Americans that signed for the military or were drafted for earlier wars would come home and their reservations were taken over or seized while white American men would return home and be treated like the heroes.
Regardless of the statistics or based on the variables given, there’s something they all share and that’s the title of being a veteran. Janet M. Wilmoth of Syracuse University mentioned in a journal Work-Related Disability, Veteran Status, and Poverty: Implications for Family Well-Being that a recent study states that the increased odds of functional limitations and disabilities associated with veterans are higher, but not limited to, the decreased odds of functional limitations and disabilities associated with active duty statuses among women than men” (Wilmoth, 2011). The veterans come home and are still faced with the same problems and societal norms as everybody else. Some may be treated differently and have to suffer a little more than the others, but to each other they are still equal know the pressure and expectations of war.
There is not a specific conclusion or answer to why some many veterans are in poverty. It is maybe the PTSD or other contributing factors, but there is no certain answer. In an article written by Romeo Vitelli Ph.D in ‘Psychology Today’, he states “And there are any number of reasons why someone could end up on the street. Along with the enormous number of people who were forced into homelessness when mental hospitals were closed across the United States during the 1970s, whole families have been reduced to homelessness following the recent economic reversals of the past ten years”(Vitelli,2017). Vitelli suggests that many people theorize that the country’s economic downfall is the reason for homelessness of veterans. When the economy crashed in 2009, the VA and other government based agencies felt the hit. They were unable to provide the necessities needed by some of the veterans and that unfortunately included medical and psychological needs, which many needed to sustain a normal, functional life.
In a recent study, Homeless Aging Veterans in Transition: A Life-Span Perspective was discussed and how they are slowly, but secretly, becoming the highest population of homeless veterans. “Aging homeless veterans who are not identified as in need of services for substance abuse are not eligible for existing Veterans’ Administration services that include safe housing or shelter services…The individual’s reactions and interactions with the environment relative to the various gains and losses experienced by the individual in life are specific to the types of characteristics and descriptive information indicative of a life-span perspective (Bridier Thompson 2013).” The study suggest that the population is high in this demographic due to multidimensional factors regarding the veteran’s prior life and their life after war. Many returned home from war and didn’t do anything or had no other skills and were suffering from depression, PTSD, etc, and weren’t qualified to anything else then slipped through society’s cracks.
Like any other social problem, there are risk factors that come along with it. The term risk factor is defined as “are characteristics at the biological, psychological, family, community, or cultural level that precede and are associated with a higher likelihood of negative outcomes”. (Risk and Protective Factors 2018). Discussed previously, many veterans come home and are having issues readjusting to the normalcy of society and are experiencing PTSD on levels that many people can’t fathom. They are having to deal with the real world and the pressures that brings and are given gateway drugs and it starts to all spiral down. It’s not hard to understand and see how all these factors will increase a person’s chances of becoming homeless. You need a steady income to find and maintain housing, so people who struggle and live below the poverty line will often find it hard to afford housing. Mental illnesses can make it impossible for some people to function in everyday society and maintain a steady job. Also like any other social problem, there’s always cases of resilience. We hear on the news or read articles about veterans becoming amputees and then running the Boston marathon. Every person has risk factors, it all just depends on how they perceive them.
There seems to be a little hope in the future for veterans hopefully we will start to see the numbers decrease as the years go on. The VA has a new plan that could help those most affected. Caitlin Dewey wrote an article for the Washington Post called ‘Why so many veterans go hungry — and VA’s new plan to fix it’. In the article she talks to a veteran who was a military advocate who, like many others in the country, found it hard that Veterans struggled to put food on the table. “The Department of Veterans Affairs will screen all vets who visit its health-care facilities for hunger, asking them whether they’ve struggled to afford food in the past three months…If they say yes, VA staff will connect them to a local food pantry or community program, share information on enrolling in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) or refer them to follow-up care with a dietary counselor, if needed” (Dewey, 2017).
Combatting the veteran homelessness and PTSD crisis is a fight that is continuing to be fought by many local community activists, charities, and others that seek to help veterans, despite the issue usually being out of the public eye. With all the research and articles given, it paints a picture to demonstrate how vulnerable many veterans can be following their return from deployment. Along with veterans who have mental health or substance abuse problems, veterans with no financial help or no family members can always find themselves facing problems. But it starts at the root of the problem- the military. By teaching servicemen basic life skills like reducing stress and financial planning and helping to create healthy habits such as better eating and sleeping, the military can at least help try give it’s veterans a better chance when they leave the military. But also, as a society we have to learn how find more efficient and practical ways to help those amongst us who are willing to join the military and serve.
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