In the wake of a contentious election, and even four years, perhaps the holiday we most needed was Veterans Day. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, we pause to acknowledge the sacrifices of the men and women who have served in our armed forces.
Originally, this was the time to commemorate the end of World War I, but it was later changed to recognize all of our veterans. Surely, we can all agree that it is worthwhile to recognize the sacrifices of those who have served while protecting our homeland.
The sacrifices have changed over the years. In earlier wars, it was typically the sacrifice of life. Today, because of the advancements of modern medicine, it is more often permanent injury, too often to the point of disability.
Mental health can also be impacted just as severely, something unrecognized for much too long. We now recognize the debilitating effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction and depression.
We also know the impact is not limited to the veteran. This begins while he or she is still enlisted, from the economic stresses of a family where one parent might be away while the other must work to ensure the family does not fall into poverty to the simple stress of fearing for the future when in combat.
Increasingly, our military draws from communities without significant economic resources to fall back upon, which reduces the safety net that might have existed with broader enrollment drawing from a wider socioeconomic stratification for the full-service corps.
Although veterans, and active service members, live below the poverty line at lower rates than the general population, it is sad that there are any. Furthermore, the fact that the very reason there are not more in poverty is because they are just above the poverty line is even worse.
For 2020, the federal poverty level is $12,760 for a single person, not too hard to exceed on any 40-hour-per-week job. A starting soldier in the Army earns just over $20,000, which is actually below the poverty level for a family of three.
If his or her workweek were only 40 hours, this is less than $10/hour. However, most soldiers often work much more than a 40-hour week. For our veterans, perhaps they are compensated by that generous military pension we often hear about? In order to receive a pension, one must serve a minimum of 20 years. Only one in five makes it that long.
I hope that it is both shocking and repulsive to everyone that we compensate our soldiers so poorly. And yet, it is not just our soldiers, it is many more good-working people whom we undercompensate.
To say that an individual must make under $12,760, or a family of three under $21,720 to be considered living in poverty is ridiculous. A full-time job at the federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 would pay only $15,080 annually at 40 hours/week, just over the federal poverty level for an individual. I don’t think that is a coincidence.
So much of our lives are built upon the low wages of others to support our own conveniences. That $1 hamburger at McDonald’s is possible because of the low wages paid to the people taking our orders and preparing the food. How much we pay someone tells how much we value him or her as a person, and as a laborer.
Attend any sporting event, and there will be some point where a small group of service members in attendance will be highlighted on the Jumbotron, and everyone will rise together to applaud them.
In reality, each person who bought a ticket to that event is probably paying more per hour to attend the event than those soldiers are being paid per hour. We often talk about the “price of freedom” in conjunction with our armed forces and how we must support our troops. I can tell you that it is less than $10 an hour.
No one should be asked to sacrifice so much financially whether it is for something as trivial as a Big Mac or as consequential as our national security.
David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.