Did Vietnam veterans get sicker in the 1990s? The complicated effects of military service on self-reported health
The veterans disability compensation (VDC) program, which provides a monthly stipend to disabled veterans, is the third largest American disability insurance program. Since the late 1990s, VDC growth has been driven primarily by an increase in claims from Vietnam veterans, raising concerns about costs as well as health. We use the draft lottery to study the long-term effects of Vietnam-era military service on health and work in the 2000 Census. We find no evidence that military service affected overall employment rates or overall work-limiting disability rates (that is, health conditions that make work difficult). At the same time, military service sharply increased federal transfer income, especially for lower skilled white men, among whom there was also a large negative impact on employment and a marked increase in disability rates. The differential impact of Vietnam-era service on low-skilled men cannot be explained by more combat or war-theatre exposure for the least educated, because high school graduates were at least as likely to be exposed to combat or war theatre as the less-educated. This leaves the relative attractiveness of VDC for less-skilled men and the work disincentives embedded in the VDC system as a likely explanation for our findings.
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