Published on November 8, 2019

This year marks the 101st anniversary of Armistice Day. What started as a day to commemorate the armistice that ended World War I has evolved in the United States: now it marks the service of thousands of men and women. All these years later, what’s life like for American veterans? Let’s look at data on veterans across the country and how they are served by the government.

Who are veterans?

According to the US Census, about 7% of the adult population, or 18 million people, identified as veterans in 2018. With the overall size of the military declining and older veterans passing away, the number of people identifying as veterans has steadily declined for two decades.

Nine percent of veterans today are female, which is more than twice the proportion of veterans that were female in 2000. More than half of today’s veterans served in Vietnam, Korea, or World War II, and 11% served in wars after 2001. Almost half of veterans today are over 65 years old, nearly 80% of veterans are white.

How are veterans doing?

The economic situation of veterans is improving in some ways, particularly in comparison to the overall population. The nation’s unemployment rate in 2018 was 3.9%; the rate for veterans was even lower at 3.5%

Veteran unemployment rate

According to the Census, there were over nine million employed veterans in 2019, with the largest group of veterans — 22% — working in government. They also often find work in manufacturing (12% of veterans are in that industry), and professional and business services (11% of veterans), which includes jobs such as those in consulting, management, and accounting. Younger veterans are even more likely than older veterans to work in government, whereas older veterans are more likely to be self-employed.

Veterans also earn more on average than non-veterans. The median 2018 income for veterans was $41,555, while the median income of adult civilians was $31,476. However, veteran poverty and disability rates have increased over the past two decades. Seven percent of veterans have incomes below the poverty level, and 29% of veterans are disabled.

Veteran poverty and disability rates

Fewer veterans face homelessness now than in years past, according to Point in Time counts. In 2018, the VA estimated that there were 38,000 homeless veterans, down almost 50% from the 2001 estimate of 65,000.

What does the government do to support veterans?

The government spent nearly $200 billion in 2018 on the Department of Veterans Affairs, accounting for 5% of all federal spending. Most of that spending funds veterans’ compensation, pension benefits, and medical care.

Veterans Affairs expenditures and utilization by expenditures type

Veterans Affairs expenditures and utilization by benefits utilization

In 2018, the VA spent $71 billion on veteran medical care, serving more than 6 million patients. Spending per patient varies significantly across the priority group of veterans, which gives urgency to patients based on the severity of their disability or medical condition, and whether the condition is related to their service.

More than four million veterans used the disability compensation program in 2016, making it the VA’s most-accessed program. The number of veterans taking advantage of education benefits was just over one million in 2016, almost double the veterans using the benefit in 2008.

With each passing year since 2000, the US has fewer and fewer veterans. Veterans are seeing improvements in quality of life, including lower unemployment rates. Conversely, increased poverty and disability rates mean their situation is worsening in other ways. Even with a shrinking veteran population, government spending on veterans is up, with a growing amount of funding going to disability compensation and medical care.