Illinois struggles to help returning vets

Illinois has been trying to assist veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. On December 14th,  2011, Governor Quinn signed into law the “Welcome Home Heroes” program to assist veterans with first-time home purchases. The state also offers the Illinois Veterans Grant (IVG), which pays for up to four years of higher education. The state has also added the “Illinois Warrior Assistance Program” to assist veterans with PTSD.

Unfortunately, the largest portion of Illinois’ veteran spending goes to programs that benefit older veterans, and current state budget deficits are a constant issue with existing program funding.

The “Welcome Home Heroes” program just signed into law will make available $10,000 as a down payment for veterans purchasing a home for the first time. This comes in the form of a loan, which is forgivable over two years. This has already been put into use, but it is important to note that there was no new funding for the program from the state; funds are instead reallocated from existing programs.

Illinois has been struggling to maintain benefits for returning veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The number of veterans has  ballooned in the last decade—from     100,000 in the 2000 census to 190,000 currently. This trend will likely continue as more veterans reenter the community, as the war in Afghanistan continues.

A key resource that is important to the returning veteran is education. Many of the problems that veterans struggle with can be ameliorated through higher education. Veterans have higher rates of unemployment (four times the national average) and homelessness. The Illinois Veterans Grant (IVG) h pays for up to 4 years of higher education. It is little known that the funding for the program relies on state-financed universities granting free tuition to Illinois veterans. This is currently working, but should the financial problems afflicting universities become acute, the program would have no way of continuing.

The “Illinois Warriors Assistance Program” assists veterans with issues related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It provides a help line, counseling and referals to other services. Once again, funding is an issue. The state has provided only $274,000 to fund the program. In many ways, the state is in a better position to offer assistance to veterans in need of help with the “invisible wounds” associated with service. This is especially true for those in smaller towns and rural areas, where access to Federal resources like VA hospitals is problematic. It is difficult to imagine how much the state program will be able to accomplish with a paltry budget of a quarter million dollars.

Illinois is currently spending $82.86 million for the four veterans’ homes that serve the state’s veterans of WWII, Korea and are just starting to see Vietnam veterans. Between 900 and  1,000 veterans receive help from this program. By comparison, the remainder of the state’s spending on veterans comes to $15 million. This represents a huge discrepancy, and while it can be argued that Illinois is doing a better job than many states in helping veterans, much remains to be done.