THE REAGAN ADMINISTRATION has gone back to the drawing board to find another $9 billion or more in budget savings. Among the reported targets is a plump and well-protected one: veterans' programs. About $800 million will be cut from the $24.5 billion the Carter budget proposed for next year. This is a start in the right direction. But there is more to be saved.
Veteran's programs are not only enormous, but growing rapidly. The planned '82 budget marked an increase of $3.2 billion over last year, and that was only a prelude to the expansion expected in the near future as the bulk of World War II veterans enter retirement. Only a fraction of this money goes to the type of veteran who, everyone will agree deserves very special treatment -- those injured while in service.
Almost $8 billion will be spent next year on the veterans' hospital system that provides free, if less than first-rate care to any veteran for any ailment as long as space is available. About 80 percent of patients in these hospitals are there for treatment of illnesses in no way related to their military service. Another $4 billion will be spent on pensions for needy veterans with no service-related disability. This is simply a separate welfare system for veterans with the important difference that benefits are over 50 percent higher than those paid by the federal government to other aged and disabled persons. And then there are housing benefits of several kinds, burial benefits, educational subsideies and special insurance programs as well as preferential treatment programs. The Veterans Administration has also been the fastest growing bureaucracy in recent years, adding 45,000 employees to its ranks over the last decade while total federal employment has declined.
In evaluating these benefits, remember that, as a group, veterans have incomes substantially above those of the rest of the popluation in their same age groups. The vast majority have private medical insurance coverage and other employment-related benefits. Relative few beneficiaries of veterans' programs were disabled while in the service. Even Vietnam era veterans, a generally less favored group than veterans of earlier periods, now have higher incomes and lower unemployment rates than other men of their age.
There is also the matter of program administration. Veterans' programs are administered on the general premise that all applicants for assistance are to be throughly trusted. This is a heart-warming assumption, but it is certainly not one the government has seen fit to make in dealing with the rest of the popluation of needy and disabled. There are continuing audits and ever more stringent screening procedures in plain old welfare programs, and sure enough these find some cheating. But somehow we never hear about any studies of abuse in veterans' programs -- or for that matter, Social Security or Medicare. Could this be because these programs are ferociously protected by well-placed lobbies?
While we're on the subject of the double standard operating in our social programs, we will mention the feeling growing among many observers as the administration's economic program is gradually unveiled. We were promised a balanced program but, thus far, we have not been given one. The budget cuts have come to much at the expense of the really needy and the tax cut favor too much the really rich. The programs that have been "held harmless" are either small potatoes -- Head Start and summer youth jobs -- or big money for primarily middle-class groups -- Social Security pensions, Medicare and veterans' programs. Now there is talk of more cuts in food, jobs and education for the disadvantaged. Enough -- it is time to start rounding up the sacred cows, if not for slaughter, at least of a rigorous program of diet and exercise.