Amid the scandals and squabbles of the various political races in New York City, it’s easy to lose focus on what matters most: what will the candidates do to serve the people and interests of our City? There are many important issues, and how you see them may depend on your political leanings or your public policy background. But there should be no political disagreement on better serving our City’s military veterans.
The excellent Joe Bello, a Navy vet and the voice behind the grassroots information and advocacy group NY MetroVets, has produced and released a briefing paper called “Down Range and Home Again: How the Next Mayor Can Help NYC’s Veterans” that speaks not only to NYC’s mayoral candidates, but should be taken up by all candidates for City office as common-sense ways that NYC can follow through on its commitment to its military veterans.
John F. Kennedy once said on the subject of honoring veterans, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” New York State has the fourth-largest population of veterans in the U.S., and NYC is home to more than 224,000 veterans, with an estimated 18,000 of them serving in recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our state and federal governments offer programs and policies that help with reintegrating veterans into the community, as well as providing educational and medical support. Yet too often veterans in NYC find these benefits are not readily accessible, and are instead clouded by the daily struggles of life in NYC–how to pay rent, how to compete for jobs and housing, how to navigate a VA health system that can be difficult even to get to, and sometimes they struggle with how to stay out of trouble.
For example, in NYC, the amount of time that veterans wait while their disability claims are processed is more than twice the national average. That means that a veteran who cannot work due to a service-related disability, such as the loss of a limb or a traumatic brain injury, waits an average of 273 days for the VA to determine whether he or she is eligible for disability pay and other benefits–the same veteran in NYC waits an average of 642 days. That is a long time to wait on payments to help pay the rent if you can’t work or go to school. Veterans also return home to their families and communities in NYC without a reasonable knowledge of what their benefits are, and how to access them. Of NYC’s Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, approximately 40% were deployed as National Guard or Reserve troops (compared with a national average of 22%), meaning that they have not had the full access to training on benefits, services related to civilian reintegration, and medical care that active troops receive—and even now, active troops do not receive adequate information about how to navigate an often hazy, byzantine system of veterans benefits.
Because NYC has a separate body of laws, policies, incentives, and benefits–there is tremendous potential for NYC to take a proactive approach to helping veterans access their state and federal benefits, as well as offering comparable benefits at the City government level. And if NYC wants to lead the nation in progressive, proactive policies that truly benefit our citizens, ensuring that our military veterans are given adequate opportunities and care when they return from our nation’s wars is an easily attainable and highly effective way to lead.
If anyone in NYC knows firsthand the struggles of veterans, it is Joe Bello, and he has selflessly advocated for NYC veterans for years, and knows very well what is and isn’t available to the veterans of all eras that he’s worked to help. These are Joe’s top 5 recommendations, plus some of my own thoughts and first-hand observations:
1. Overhaul the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA). I can tell you firsthand that only precious few veterans in NYC even know that MOVA exists, which is the first problem. The second problem is that the few veterans who do know about it largely see it as a self-licking envelope, perhaps more invested in perpetuating its own budget than it is in reaching out to the tens of thousands of veterans who need it. Mayor Bloomberg has prioritized a wide array of vital initiatives through his various offices, but veterans have not been one of his apparent priorities. Yet veterans, who represent NYC’s full spectrum of age, ethnicity, and socio-economic diversity, are an important, high-return investment for NYC. The next mayor needs to understand this and prioritize accordingly.
2. Reinstate the NYC Veterans Advisory Board, as passed in 2006. The City Council passed legislation, signed by Mayor Bloomberg in 2006, to institute a Veterans Advisory Board that meets four times a year, with members appointed for three-year terms, and a duty to advise MOVA on the needs of veterans in NYC. Yet there remains no organized or public schedule of meetings (despite New York State’s Open Meetings law), no report of its activities that is accessible to the public, and the same appointees have served for years, with exception of those who have resigned. If MOVA is not entirely a self-licking envelope, the Veterans Advisory Board certainly is. Was the Veterans Advisory Board just a vote-grabbing stunt for the 2006 election cycle?
3. Include veterans as a targeted population for NYC jobs and business enterprise programs (to include City contracting with veteran-owned businesses) along with women and minorities. The unemployment rate for veterans aged 18-34 years old is roughly 15%, which is about 3% higher than this alarmingly high unemployment rate for the same veterans across the rest of New York State. It is important to level the playing field by bolstering economic opportunities for traditionally underserved populations—and veterans must be recognized as one of these populations.
4. Remove the unnecessary penalties that reduce the veterans’ exemption on property taxes. Because it’s the right thing to do.
5. Enforce existing affordable housing protections, include veterans in the City’s affordable housing programs, and bring the NYC Housing Authority’s programs into compliance with federal and state veterans preference standards. As Joe points out, rent control was instituted after WWII primarily to assist returning veterans, and those veterans made good on the investment. Today, rent control does little to nothing for veterans, while veterans struggle disproportionately with joblessness and homelessness. NYC has the largest urban homeless population in the U.S., and more than 10% of this population are veterans. The need is real, and simply updating existing legislation can make a profound difference in bringing these numbers down.
Joe has other detailed recommendations and observations in “Down Range and Home Again” and you should read them. Better yet, spread the word and ask questions of the NYC candidates who are asking for your vote in the September 10th primary, and the November 5th general election. We expect our federal and state representatives to follow through on our nation’s obligations to its military veterans, and we should expect no less of our City’s elected officials.