A surprisingly common, yet often unacknowledged story, exists in my family and many others of European American descent.
A grandfather, or maybe a great uncle, served in World War II. They returned home after their time in the military and went to college or purchased their first home.
It was from there that they went to their well-paying job, sent their kids to a quality school and solidified themselves in America’s middle class.
The financial stability and prosperity made college a natural next step for their children, my parent’s generation.
With a little help and maybe some small debt, they were able to pay for this schooling, get a well-paying job and perpetuate the cycle once again.
Home ownership and advanced education were now in reach of millions of Americans when a generation before these goods were far more limited.
And, as my grandparents’ generation has begun to pass away, an enormous wealth transfer is taking place as these homes are passed along to future generations.
The unnamed character in this story, of course, is the federal government and the GI Bill.
A public policy decision to dramatically subsidize both higher education and home loans for service members created enormous wealth and opportunity for millions.
The assumption I was raised with – that one day I would attend college – had been created in part because of this government program generations before.
We live in an economic system that does not just reward work; it rewards wealth. The opportunities that are available when you already have resources are vastly different than for those who don’t.
Two families might pay the exact same amount in monthly housing costs, but if one of those families had the resources for a down payment and the other only had enough for first and last month’s rent, the first family is building personal wealth through homeownership while the second family is sending off a check every month to someone who is building wealth.
The GI Bill helped build the European American middle class. Families like mine and countless others I know still benefit from it to this day.
That wealth has been and will keep being passed down for generations to come, opening up new opportunities to accumulate even more wealth.
But that same bill didn’t provide equitable benefits to all who served. Over a million African American service members didn’t get the benefits their European American counterparts did.
While the language of the bill didn’t specifically exclude African American service members, the implementation of the programs achieved nearly universal exclusion.
Even with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) cosigning loans, European American-run banks refused African American loans and redlined neighborhoods.
African American veterans in Indianapolis, for example, couldn’t participate in a vocational training program because the equipment used was only available to European American students.
In 1947, only two of the 3,200 VA-backed home loans in Mississippi went to non-white veterans.
Northern universities resisted admitting black students, and southern universities barred them almost entirely.
The creation or expansion of historically black colleges and universities could not and did not keep up with demand.
Many others had a hard time accessing any of these educational programs at all because the immediate economic needs of their families were too great to afford the opportunity to take the time to invest in education.
Historian Ira Katznelson states it simply: There was “no greater instrument for widening an already huge racial gap in postwar America than the GI Bill.”
This injustice, of course, didn’t start with the GI Bill. Wealth in many European families had been built slowly over the course of generations.
Work was rewarded, and then work and wealth were rewarded. But for those who had been enslaved, work had not been rewarded but stolen.
Generations were traumatized, and wealth was created for others. Almost no reparations were made for what had been stolen, and many still live from the benefits of what had been forcibly taken.
Today, the median European American family has $171,000 in wealth. The median African American family only $17,000.
This did not happen by accident. Wealth was stolen from African Americans and redistributed to European Americans for generations.
The GI program demonstrates that the government can run successful programs to redistribute wealth to ensure that more people have the financial stability and resources they need.
But that redistribution was far from equitable, and we see the ongoing results today.
As W.E.B. Dubois wrote, “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for World Day of the Poor 2019. The previous articles are:
Pope: Economic Inequality Largely Unchanged Since Biblical Times | EthicsDaily.com Staff
Ending Poverty Isn’t Priority for Far Too Many Christians | William Brackney
A Dual Approach for Christians to Make a Difference to the Poor | John Daugherty
Hannah McMahan King is co-executive director of New Baptist Covenant.