Readers of Philanthropy may remember that a few years ago, a dozen donors put up $15 million to launch a bold experiment aimed at fixing one of the most discouraging social problems in America—the explosion of prime-age workers living on disability benefits rather than supporting themselves and their families. Dependence on disability results in a low standard of living, and huge taxpayer costs, but the even more perverse effect is that beneficiaries end up with high rates of mental illness, addiction, family breakdown, and deteriorating physical health, due to their disconnection from the wholesome routines, social connections, and personal satisfactions of constructive work.
The philanthropically created Independence Project is focused on a particularly heartbreaking slice of the population on disability: young veterans. (For background on the project and the problem it addresses, see “Labeled Disabled” in the Summer 2015 issue of Philanthropy.) There is now a whole industry that convinces individuals leaving military service that many of their aches and pains are disabilities—with the tragic result that over 40 percent of all new veterans now file paperwork to get themselves classified as disabled. Just a small fraction of these individuals ever spent any time in a war zone, and only a very thin sliver were injured in combat.
The bottom line: today’s veterans tap into the disability system at about five times the rate of their brethren from World War II (where a much larger population actually came under fire). As a result, disability benefits to veterans will total $83 billion this fiscal year, a number that surges upward every season. Over the next 40 years, this will cost the public more than half a trillion dollars.
Worse, participation in work by prime-age (25-34 years old) male veterans has tumbled from 95 percent to 84 percent amidst this disability explosion. Some of our most impressive young people are retiring to a couch in their mom’s basement and a monthly check in the mail. Once classified as disabled, many of these men and women fall into a spiral of ever-increasing claims, ever-less work and social interaction, soaring depression, and dysfunction. Having poured themselves into convincing the V.A. that they are broken, they increasingly act broken.
And there is another set of victims: The relatively modest number of veterans seriously injured during their service to the country. These individuals have the highest claim on the nation for rehabilitation, support, and help in finding a new, productive life. But today’s disability system is so clogged with mass claims that backlogs now extend for years, budgets are stressed, rehab professionals are overwhelmed with minor complaints, and the injured fighters who ought to be the center of our attention sometimes get lost in the shuffle.
As an antidote to all of this, the donors organized by The Philanthropy Roundtable created the Independence Project to test a new program which turns our existing benefits system on its head. (For details, see “Rethinking Disability” in the Spring 2017 issue of Philanthropy.) Instead of offering just a lifetime of benefits to veterans with claims, it invests extensively in injured vets up front—providing them, just as they leave the military, with specialized job coaches, training, funds to purchase equipment or occupational credentials, even a temporary wage bonus on top of anything they earn—all to help them enter the workforce and discover the satisfactions of self-reliance.
The first pilot results of this experiment, which is being executed by the nonprofit Hire Heroes USA, have just become available. The program is still being refined, and it will be about two years before final results begin to accumulate. Thanks to scientific support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, these results will include rigorous randomized-control comparisons to peer veterans within the standard V.A. disability system.
But already, the powerful outcomes among the first classes of volunteer participants are exciting interest. Disabled veterans who entered the Independence Project pilot were more than twice as likely, compared to other similarly disabled vets, to be employed (69 percent vs. 27 percent). Their incomes were much higher at every point of the economic spectrum. And disabled vets who went through this program reported initial annual salaries of $60,100, far above the national average for their demographic group.
Rather than languishing as low-income wards of the state, it appears that injured veterans can be helped to thrive and stand proudly on their own two feet.