By Michael P. McCarthy, Senior English Undergraduate, Research Assistant, UMass Dartmouth Urban Initiative
Working at the Urban Initiative has kept my curiosity satisfied. Since I began here last summer, I’ve been able to participate in a variety of projects with different levels of intensity. Whether I was helping edit a report for the Taunton Housing Authority or updating information on a SCUIP page, there was always a new way immerse myself in a foreign subject. I’ve always enjoyed going down the rabbit a hole a little ways if it means I can come back having learned something new about our work or my perception of the world.
When fall began, the Veteran’s Transition House of New Bedford contracted us to assess the needs of local Veterans. Colleen asked me if I’d like to helm the project. I will admit that I was slightly nervous; working for years as a cook, I had gotten used to instant results and taking on a project from the start seemed daunting. But I’m glad I accepted it.
With help from my colleagues here at UI, Katya, Bob, and Colleen, and David Borges from the Center for Policy Analysis, I began to formulate a plan. The Veterans Transition House had defined their service area as the entirety of Bristol County, but when I poked around the VA for information on the cities and towns of the county, I could not find any detailed information – the VA has public data on the county and the Congressional district, which was not updated to reflected Massachusetts’ redistricting. What I did find was a national survey of Veterans and homeless Veterans needs assessment. Keeping in mind one our favorite idioms, “no need to reinvent the wheel,” I adapted the survey to assess the needs of Bristol County Veterans. To me this had two major benefits: first, I didn’t have to design a survey from scratch, and I would have national figures to compare with the local Veteran population.
After Colleen and I piloted the survey during New Bedford’s Veterans’ Day parade, we felt that we were ready to administer it to the greater Veteran population. The roll out was on Thanksgiving. I spent the morning at the transition house packing the surveys in with the 160 or so meals brought local Veterans and their families. Everyone got turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and their own pie – randomized between berry and apple. I learned two important lessons from this day. First, incentives are important; the survey included a raffle entry form and nearly all were returned with a completed form. Also, many people in New Bedford and the area are concerned with improving the lives of our Veterans. So many volunteers showed up to help that most job stations were double staffed. I had two assistants just for handing envelopes to drivers. I went to my family dinner that night wanting to produce a report that would validate all the work being done by the volunteers and staff at the transition house, something that would make their mission easier to complete.
While I waited for the surveys to come back, I began pouring over Census and VA information on Bristol County Veterans. I learned about the VA’s VetPop population model, which predicted a decline in the local population. Comparing these to recent Census figures showed just how accurate the projections are. I hope that we are able to avoid another large spike in combat Veterans and reach the 2040 projection, meaning our Veteran population would have declined by nearly 60 percent.
Another interesting take away from my compilation of secondary data was the Veteran unemployment rates. Before the recession, Bristol County Veterans had a lower unemployment rate than the general population. By 2010, the rate among Veterans had risen nearly four points and was one and half points higher than general unemployment. Searching for an explanation, I happened across the Congressional Joint Economic Committee’s annual report on Veteran employment. I learned that not only are Veterans in Massachusetts disproportionately unemployed at a rate 9.9 percent, but Veterans of the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have unemployment rates more than double their fellow Veterans – 23 percent. For people working to end homelessness among Veterans, like the transition house, this number speaks to the uncertainty facing those returning home from war.
By early March, surveys had begun trickling in from Veteran Service Offices in the cities and towns across the county. Recruiting VSOs to help administer the surveys showed me the importance of engaging with stakeholders in the community. Massachusetts mandates that each municipality have a service officer, or for small towns share one with nearby communities, in order to help Veterans apply for services and receive financial aid for housing, clothing, and food. These VSOs deal directly with the Veteran subpopulation I was hoping to reach with the needs assessment. On average, most of the VSOs I spoke with dealt with around 35 active cases, ranging from Veterans’ widows to homeless young Veterans. To some extend this portion of the research was frustrating, both due to lack of engagement from some partners and low return rate from those able to assist. I reminded myself that all the surveys were voluntary and analyzed the responses. As it turns out, the Veterans surveyed have needs similar their national cohort, and they are most lacking in dental care, perhaps the most complex aspect of the VA medical benefits application process. However, their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter were mostly met.
While I lacked the targeted number of surveys, the database started by the research can be used to further explore the needs of local Veterans. I hope that the Veteran’s Transition House will be able to continue administering the needs assessment and building the database, as it will prove useful as they realign their mission to the changing needs of Veterans. Hopefully, it will also be of use to future researchers and community partners. Now, I’m looking forward to my next project, whatever it may be, so that I can immerse myself in a new world and conduct research to inform people working to strengthen our community and region.