Furor of all types greeted a recent “Covid money trail” story, reported in the Washington Post, about a nearly $400 million military veteran retraining program that has resulted in only 397 actual jobs for veterans. The furor is well-justified, even in its fairly predictable partisan expressions: Democratic Party sympathizers are seeing it as yet another proof of the predatory evilness of for-profit institutions of higher learning or proof that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) shouldn’t utilize the private sector; Republican Party sympathizers are skewering it as a Biden era domestic fiasco or yet another proof of federal government incompetence. In neither case does the federal government come off very well.

But the real furor should be over the multiple other problems that the story reveals about the system of federal money nominally designated for veterans, and the absolute inattention with which veterans programs are handled once the politicians score their political points for voting “pro-veteran.” 

There is a persistent and shocking lack of accountability for nearly all VA programs, especially those housed within the Veteran Benefits Administration (VBA). (Quick primer: the VA is composed of three “administrations”—the Veterans Health Administration, the VBA, and the National Cemetery Administration.) In part, this is because the VBA is tasked with handling the veterans disability system, whose gargantuan challenges include being a century-old system with an Industrial Age-focused medical model, regular backlogs reaching over half a million unprocessed claims, lack of staff (including executive staff), and a deep-seated resistance to reforms that would benefit veterans but at the perceived expense of the around 250,000 members of VA’s union, the American Federation of Government Employees. 

Because the VA’s largest financial outlays are actually through the VBA’s income security programs, and not through the VHA’s health programs, the VBA’s focus for years has been on its disability programs and to the neglect of its education and other economic opportunity programs—including its workforce retraining programs such as are mentioned in the WaPo story—also housed within the VBA. The VBA appears so frequently on the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) High Risk List, GAO’s reprimands that the VBA doesn’t “follow leading practices for effective reforms, such as establishing goals and implementation plans” appear to no longer phase the agency. To this day, the VA measures its outputs, not outcomes, for its programs, meaning that it has precious little institutional knowledge of what might be working, or not working at all, in terms of programs to help actual veterans. 

Not to mention, the VA has not staffed its higher education and workforce training programs with administrators experienced in higher education administration, unlike the Department of Education. This raises the pointed question of whether the VA staff tasked with administering programs like the Veteran Rapid Retraining Assistance Program (VRRAP) possess the professional knowledge necessary to judge school and training program quality in the first place, let alone to build in the infrastructure for accountability and oversight. 

With a VA budget now larger than the combined budgets of the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of Justice, and the entire intelligence community, the scandal is decidedly not about the lack of money for military veterans. The true scandal is that we don’t even bother to care enough to ensure that veterans programs actually benefit veterans.