The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Poverty in the Ranks

Veterans, who make up almost 10 percent of the American population over the age of 18, suffer lower rates of material hardship than those who did not serve, according to research. However, disabled veterans are just as likely to suffer material hardship as other disabled people, according to a study published in the March 2012 Social Service Review.

“Veteran Status and Material Hardship” shines a rare light on the financial struggles of some veterans and raises questions about whether, after passing through more than a decade of war, the country is taking adequate care of its former soldiers. Veterans are eligible for many programs unavailable to nonveterans, including housing benefits and health care, and many nonprofits’ mission is to serve veterans. “Certainly society thinks we’re taking care of vets, that programs are meeting their needs,” says Colleen Heflin, a professor at the University of Missouri and the paper’s lead author. “Our research tends to indicate otherwise.”

Heflin and her co-authors, Andrew London and Janet Wilmoth, both from Syracuse University, used national data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation. They looked at four categories of material hardship: housing, food, medical care and bill-paying. Households with non-disabled veterans experience the same degree of hardship in some categories—food and housing—as nonveterans, and less than nonveterans in the areas of medical care and bill-paying. Disabled veterans, on the other hand, fared worse than non-disabled veterans in all four categories and about the same as other disabled people. For example, disabled veterans suffer more medical hardship—the inability to see a doctor or a dentist when they need one—than their non-disabled counterparts. They also have more trouble with paying rent, utility or mortgage bills. Indeed, households with disabled veterans are twice as likely to experience billpaying difficulties as households with non-disabled veterans.

The study, which was funded by the National Poverty Center, doesn’t show why disabled veterans fare worse than non-disabled veterans. Heflin and her co-authors are working on further research to see if they can find answers. One question they will ask is whether veterans are able to take advantage of the help available to them; students have told her that such services can be hard to access and veterans are sometimes discouraged from using them.

Heflin’s study highlights the surprising paucity of similar research. Most studies of poverty leave veterans out, and studies of veterans seldom address poverty. “We don’t know much about vets,” she says.