Disabled Vets and Poverty

In general, veterans who receive disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are less likely to live in poverty than other disabled people. Only 6.5 percent of VA disability benefit recipients live below the federal poverty line, whereas 24.2 percent of disabled nonveterans are poor. The VA reports that this figure shows the importance of VA disability benefits for keeping disabled veterans from living in poverty.

Disabled veterans fare better than specific segments of the general population as well. For example, 19 percent of rural disabled veterans live in poverty in contrast to the general rural population, about a third of which lives in poverty.

Regional and Demographic Variations Cloud Poverty Issue

There are many regional variations in these numbers. According to the VA, veterans living in poverty, whether disabled or not, are most likely to be in the Northwest and Southeast regions of the United States. Moreover, veterans living in rural areas are more likely to be disabled than the general nonveteran population in the same area. Yet, they are less likely to be poor than the general population, as indicated above.

Exceptions to Positive Stories About Vets With VA Disability Benefits

Unfortunately, the news is not entirely positive. Although disabled veterans overall are less likely to live in poverty than the general population, certain situations make some disabled vets more likely to be poor. Factors such as homelessness, unemployment and addiction cast a shadow on the generally positive situation of disabled veterans.

Disabled Veterans and Homelessness

Being homeless is a strong indicator of poverty, and veterans in general are more likely to be homeless: Veterans make up just 8 percent of the U.S. population, but they account for 17 percent of the homeless population. Moreover, veterans tend to be homeless longer than the nonveteran population: six years for vets compared with four years for nonveterans.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 54 percent of homeless veterans have a disability. It is especially challenging to conduct outreach to homeless veterans and help them obtain the disability benefits they need. This keeps the number and percentage of homeless veterans high, in contrast to veterans who already receive disability benefits.

Disabled Veterans and Unemployment

Unemployment is another predictor of poverty. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterans of the Gulf War II era with service-connected disabilities are more likely to be unemployed than veterans of the same era without service-connected disabilities. This cohort of vets stands out; disabled veterans from other wars have unemployment rates similar to those for nondisabled veterans.

Disabled Veterans and Addiction

Addiction, although not as clear a predictor of poverty as homelessness and unemployment, is still a major factor in poverty among veterans. Many become addicted to opiate painkillers while in the service because of the physical pain they suffer from bomb blasts, carrying heavy loads and major surgeries to correct battlefield injuries. Others drink to dull their pain while in the service and after. Self-medication to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental and emotional injuries can leave veterans without many resources and unable to work, pushing them into poverty. Veterans in these circumstances may not be able to acknowledge their own disabilities, making it harder for them to seek benefits.

Veterans' Disability Ratings Matter in the Fight to Stay Out of Poverty

Clearly, VA disability benefits are an economic lifeline for veterans with service-connected illnesses and conditions. However, the benefit amounts disabled veterans receive depend on how the VA rates their disabilities. A vet with a 10 percent rating receives around $133 a month in benefits, while a veteran with a 100 percent disability rating receives about $2,900 monthly. It is in a veteran's interest to ensure that he or she receives the maximum amount allowed. Otherwise, a veteran could fall into poverty or live just above the poverty line, as at least a million veterans do today.