Today in 1944: FDR signs “G.I. Bill of Rights”

June 22, 2010

Today in Legal History“We must replenish our supply of persons qualified to discharge the heavy responsibilities of the postwar world. We have taught our youth how to wage war; we must also teach them how to live useful and happy lives in freedom, justice, and decency.”

– Franklin Roosevelt, in a message to Congress, October 27, 1943

Throughout World War II, President Roosevelt and other political leaders were concerned about what would happen after the war. The Great Depression of the 1930s was still fresh in everyone’s minds, and the fear that the United States could relapse into another depression was very real.

G.I. Bill poster for educational trainingCongress responded by passing the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. Signed into law on June 22, the “G.I. Bill of Rights” provided a number of valuable benefits for returning veterans, including:

  • Education and training. Veterans were offered tuition for vocational schools and colleges, at a time when a college education was viewed as a privilege reserved for the upper class.
  • Loan guarantees. Veterans could apply for government-backed loans to buy homes and farms or start their own businesses.
  • Unemployment pay. This was known as the “52-20” benefit, because it provided $20 per week for up to 52 weeks to unemployed veterans looking for work.

The unemployment provision was so controversial that it nearly derailed the G.I. Bill in Congress. But as it turned out, most veterans didn’t need this benefit; less than 20 percent of the budgeted funds were doled out.

The education benefit was wildly popular among returning soldiers. Nearly half of all World War II veterans used this provision, and in the peak year of 1947, veterans accounted for nearly half of all college admissions. Not only did this transform the nation’s higher education system, it also transformed the economy as thousands of blue-collar kids took the opportunity to become doctors, lawyers and engineers.

The home loan guarantees were another transformative feature. By the end of 1952, the Veterans Administration had backed nearly 2.4 million home loans for World War II veterans, giving a generation of soldiers their first real opportunity to own their own homes and plant themselves firmly in the middle class. The mortgage guarantees also contributed to the creation of many of the nation’s inner-ring suburbs – the first step in the suburbanization of America.

For a more detailed history of this historic legislation, see “Born of Controversy: The GI Bill of Rights” on the Veterans Affairs website.