The number of military veterans in Michigan grew for the first time in over a decade last year, while the amount of federal disability benefits paid to the state's veterans also increased significantly, according to an annual report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Michigan's veteran population increased by 15,507 -- to 567,919 veterans in fiscal year 2020 (FY20) from 552,412 the previous fiscal year. That 2.8% increase topped the national increase of 1.8% and reverses the state's yearly skid of declining veteran population that dates back to at least 2010, when Michigan had more than 703,000 veterans.
The data comes from the VA's Geographic Distribution of Expenditures, or GDX report, which also tracks how much money VA spends in each state. Michigan saw a nearly $345 million increase in overall VA expenditures as well as an increase in disability compensation and pension, which are tax-free benefits for disabled veterans.
"We are proud to see more veterans and their families choose to make Michigan home," said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. "We remain committed to supporting the brave men and women who selflessly served our country in uniform and making sure they can thrive right here in Michigan."
Zaneta Adams, Director of the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency (MVAA), said the latest report suggests Michigan is improving in its efforts to reach veterans in their communities and to get them connected to the benefits and resources they earned for their service. As the state's coordinating agency for veterans and their families, the MVAA is available 24/7 through its 1-800-MICH-VET hotline and at Michigan.gov/MVAA.
"This latest GDX report is promising on several fronts," Adams said. "Michigan continues to see an increase in overall federal expenditures to our veterans and their families. We also experienced a significant rise in compensation and pension benefits to our veterans, as well as the first increase in our veteran population in years. That points to the fact that our messaging is being received and veterans in Michigan, who weren't previously connected with VA, are making that connection and starting to receive the benefits they've earned."
One key to getting more Michigan veterans connected to benefits is to first get them to identify as veterans. Adams said the MVAA has made significant strides in reaching former service members who may not identify as veterans, including women veterans through its "She is A Veteran" campaign, as well as tribal veterans and peacetime veterans. Overall, Michigan has the 11th largest veteran population in the nation.
According to the latest GDX report:
"We still have much work to do in getting more Michigan veterans connected to the benefits they earned for their service, and in securing more federal support toward that goal," Adams said. "We saw the amount of money the VA spends in Michigan on infrastructure dip last year, although we still rank in the top half of all states in that category. We will continue engaging the VA to find out what they can do to boost infrastructure and staffing in our state to serve our large veteran population."
"Additionally," she said, "we dropped in rank for the number of veterans utilizing education and vocational rehabilitation benefits and we are still evaluating to see if that was a result of COVID-19 or other factors."
Ultimately, Michigan's goal within the next five years is to rank in the top third of the 53 states and territories in terms of federal expenditures to veterans.
"That's an aggressive goal, particularly given the fact that Michigan does not have a large military installation that naturally attracts transitioning service members to remain in the state," Adams said. "But Michigan boasts a vast array of veteran-specific employment, education, health care and quality-of-life opportunities - along with low cost of living and a statewide veteran-support network - that make it a great place for transitioning service members to live, work, play and retire."