National Guard Bonus Scandal Exposes Flaws in 'Military Welfare State'

National Guard Bonus Scandal Exposes Flaws in 'Military Welfare State'

Rutgers’ Jennifer Mittelstadt offers perspective on the military’s relationship with service members and their families

Jennifer Mittelstadt sees strains coming in a military where benefits for soldiers' families are a key part of the social contract between the military and its members.
Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Department of Defense was attempting to retrieve enlistment bonuses and education loans paid in error to thousands of California National Guard soldiers as an inducement for the soldiers to re-enlist in the Guard.

The bonuses were part of a program designed to ease the strain on the department’s manpower brought about by the intense fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and were originally to be offered only to selected specialists. But California National Guard recruiters offered them widely to re-enlisting soldiers, who apparently accepted them in good faith.

The error was discovered in 2010 and the Pentagon began to dun veterans to repay those bonuses, often with interest. Many have tried to repay them, taking out second mortgages on their homes to do so. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has ordered the “clawback” suspended, and many lawmakers are calling for it to be halted permanently. The Pentagon estimates that about $600 million in bonuses and education benefits were paid to about 107,000 soldiers as of 2010. At the time of the suspension, the National Guard was still trying to locate 4,000 soldiers who might have received bonuses in error in California.

Rutgers historian Jennifer Mittelstadt studies the American military as an institution and is the author of The Rise of the Military Welfare State (Harvard University Press, 2015). Rutgers Today asked her to put the National Guard bonus scandal in perspective.

What does the episode of the California National Guard soldiers and their bonuses tell you about the state of the American military, and about the relationship between the armed forces and the people who serve in them?

Mittelstadt: The military has used cash bonuses, off and on, throughout history, but more so since the establishment of the all-volunteer force in 1973. With the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military relied on them more heavily to quickly recruit and retain people in needed occupational specialties.  What is unusual in this story in California is the sloppiness with which these bonuses were offered and paid by recruiters, before the determinations were made about whether people were eligible and the tone-deafness the military exhibited when the problem was discovered. Many people took these bonuses in good faith, and then found themselves years later after their recruiter had erroneously provided them, having to pay them back. People mortgaged their homes, and some lost their homes, in order to assume that burden. That the government should insist on being paid back for its own gross errors and, in the case of some recruiters, actual fraud, years after the fact is beyond what is reasonable.

Aside from paying bonuses for re-enlisting, how does the military attempt to keep its best people?

Jennifer Mittelstadt
Mittelstadt: Bonuses are only one tool the military used to keep the ranks filled in the post-9/11 era. They called up the individual ready reserve; initiated “stop-loss” policies (keeping people beyond their enlistments); fast-tracked citizenship applications for noncitizens in the armed forces; and became more willing to enlist people with criminal records. Of course, right now, the military is reducing the size of its force again. The Pentagon’s budget request for the fiscal year 2017 would reduce the size of the armed forces by 19,400 people and the reserve by 9,800 people.

Your 2015 book was titled The Rise of the Military Welfare State (Harvard University Press, 2015). In what way is the military a welfare state?

Mittelstadt: A common joke in the military is that it’s the most socialized institution in the country. That’s because it provides all sorts of comprehensive social goods and services universally to its members and their families that relatively few people outside the military these days have access to. The list of those services expanded during World War II and then again during the Cold War. But it was really the switch to the volunteer force in 1973 that fueled dramatic growth.  Maintaining and expanding those benefits was a fight.  When the all-volunteer military was established, some economists suggested it would be more efficient if the armed forces stopped providing those services and instead just handed military people a lot of cash so they could buy those things themselves. But the military said no, cash alone was not going to get the job done. The military continues to provide child and medical care, education and housing and much more for soldiers and their dependents. But the challenge to support and sustain military personnel has become more difficult with the sustained deployments since 2003. Still, military benefits and services – the military welfare state – like bonuses, constitute an important part of the social contract between the armed forces and its members.

What is the future of the military welfare state?

Mittelstadt: It’s not clear what the election of Donald Trump as president means for the military welfare state, but the trends are all toward privatization and outsourcing, along with a decrease in the level of benefits. Outsourcing has been at work in the military for a long time, inspired by the same sort of thinking that advocates the privatization of traditionally governmental activities like prisons. Many of the service and support jobs in the Department of Defense are outsourced to civilians – cooking, cleaning, routine maintenance, that sort of thing. And much of the military welfare state itself is now privatized – housing and health care, for example.  During the war in Iraq, even security roles were outsourced to contractors that employed former soldiers. Last November, the military began implementing a new retirement system featuring smaller pension checks and new, private, individual retirement accounts, presenting service members with the same issues private-sector workers faced 25 years ago, and other public-sector workers faced in more recent years.

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