We are a nation both grieving and grateful for our “essential workers” — grocery checkers, nurses, hospital cleaners, warehouse workers, meatpackers, cooks, Secret Service agents and “to go” drivers — all of whom risk their lives every day for reasons that range from a sense of mission to financial desperation.
These essential workers have been holding us together for eight months, even as all of us learn how to remain apart. The analogy between these Americans and our veterans struck many of us last Memorial Day as we witnessed the kind of gratitude usually reserved for returning veterans. There were military flyovers; applause from windows and balconies; official proclamations and unofficial “thank-yous” on murals and handmade signs. We marveled at the creative generosity of those who built a patchwork DIY supply chain to fill the gaps in PPE, a now-familiar acronym of our time.
Most recently, when Election Day became election week, a new group of essential workers came into view: citizens, many of them volunteers, counting the votes day and night. Their commitment to the health of American democracy makes them the latest addition to that corps of essential workers. Whatever their political affiliation or motivation, all of these Americans are doing the work of democracy, and this deserves our attention and appreciation.
But what does it mean to offer gratitude during a pandemic? Mere symbolic gestures and rhetorical flourishes fall short of what is needed to support and sustain the work of people who risk their lives every day. To express national gratitude requires rewarding national service as part of the social contract in exchange for sacrifice.
This is hardly a new idea. All major veterans benefits programs, from Revolutionary War pensions to the GI Bill, are predicated on the notion that the dangers of military service merit forms of gratitude that secure future benefits. Fighting a pandemic is not the same as fighting a war. But our nation, like many others, has had a rather narrow definition of patriotism and sacrifice. Our essential workers are patriots on the front lines, and they should be treated as such: a corps of public health warriors.
Too often, gratitude for workers and soldiers comes grudgingly, if at all. When a “Bonus Army” of World War I veterans descended on Washington in late May 1932, demanding early redemption of promised “payment certificates” in the midst of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover had them removed from the nation’s capital by force. His approach to veterans’ benefits mirrored his economic response to the Great Depression; he did not believe in any large-scale direct relief, even for returning soldiers. He also justified his opposition to the Bonus Bill by insisting that many of the marchers were, in fact, not veterans: “Many are Communists and persons with criminal records.”
A decade later, Congress didn’t wait for war’s end: The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (the GI Bill) provided a striking array of financial and medical supports to restore mind, body and bank accounts. But it was neither obvious nor inevitable that Americans would come to see returning soldiers as deserving of the government’s long-term support.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was at first a reluctant supporter of “special” benefits for veterans, and Republicans and Democrats alike largely agreed with him. Still, memories of the disastrous Bonus March, fears of a postwar recession and notably grass-roots organizing and high-pressure lobbying tactics from veterans groups finally generated enough bipartisan support for official gratitude. As historian Kathleen Frydl has put it, “the GI Bill was born from fear.”
Perhaps. But whatever the motivations of Washington politicians, it is the legislation itself that merits our attention: By passing the GI Bill, Congress and the president put down a significant marker on what a nation owes residents who risk their lives for their neighbors. They also showed how repaying that debt can stimulate the economy. Government investments in education and homeownership, for example, can have constructive ripple effects in an economy that depends so fundamentally on consumer spending.
On this Veterans Day, it is time for this generation to step up and meet the standards set by our predecessors. World War II-era legislators also had deep ideological differences over the size and scope of government. Even those who favored a stimulus questioned whether the national budget could sustain such a generous and ongoing obligation to veterans.
Yet Americans ultimately recognized in 1944 that they needed to financially reward veterans for their service. How might we reward the sacrifices of our front-line workers, ensuring they have access to the health care, higher education and affordable housing that would be analogous to the benefits conferred upon earlier generations of Americans who took risks to serve on behalf of a nation?
The GI Bill is perhaps less a precise model than an inspiration. Its local implementation gave lawmakers, bankers and college administrators ample opportunity to prevent African American veterans from accessing benefits. Yet despite its flaws, the GI Bill was creative and ambitious government problem-solving. We should marvel at its audacity, scrutinize its deficiencies and use its history to remember not only that government stimulus can work but that governance — the act of making policy for a larger public good — matters. The GI Bill was more than legislation: It was a whole political culture of possibility. Government by the people and of the people, capable of doing something for the people.