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Congress, the presidency and the federal government take a great deal of criticism - much of it deserved - for the laws they pass, sign and administer. But today marks the 50th anniversary of what has turned out to be one of the best pieces of legislation ever adopted in America - the famous GI Bill.

By unanimous vote in the House and Senate and signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 22, 1944, the GI bill became an engine that transformed the face of America. It provided education, job training and homes to millions of veterans who served in World War II.The country figured it owed the veterans a way to ease their transition back into civilian life. In previous wars, veterans were objects of pity, often jobless after the wartime boom years, some handicapped, many reduced to being homeless derelicts.

Official Washington favored the GI Bill for those reasons and also because of a fear - built on the experiences of a decadelong Great Depression - that millions of returning veterans would not be able to find work or afford homes.

The legislation, actually drafted in large part by the American Legion, provided $500 a year for college costs or job training, plus $50 a month subsistence for a veteran with no dependents, for 48 months.

The results were truly astounding.

Until the GI Bill, a college education generally was limited to an elite minority of Americans. Yet by the time the World War II GI Bill expired in 1956, some 7.8 million veterans - including 39,000 Utahns - had received school benefits, including 2.2 million in college.

In 1947, the peak year, one of every two college students in the United States was a veteran on the GI Bill. They were older and experienced in ways unknown to previous college generations. Some doubts had been expressed about the GI Bill because it might "lower the standards" in higher education. If anything, it probably raised them. The returning veterans were highly motivated and surprisingly good students. They also created large numbers of a previously rare creature - the married student.

During the same 12-year period, the Veterans Administration backed 2.3 million low-interest home loans for veterans eager to marry and start families. There was no housing industry worthy of the name at the end of the war. The GI Bill touched off an incredible housing boom that lasted for many years.

Other versions of the GI Bill followed for Korean War veterans, for Vietnam veterans and for post-draft veterans. Millions more took advantage of the school benefits and home loan guarantees.

Since 1944, more than 20 million veterans have participated in the GI Bill education benefits. It has been calculated that during the lifetime of the average veteran, the U.S. Treasury receives two to eight times as much income tax revenue as it paid to the veteran in GI benefits.

Since 1944, some 13.9 million home loans have been guaranteed by the VA. Of these, some 9.1 million have been paid in full. Only 5.7 percent of all the loans required any VA payment of claims.

In the past half-century, the GI Bill has changed the lives of millions of veterans, but perhaps none so dramatically as those from World War II. It opened doors previously closed and the list of those who used the GI Bill reads like a Who's Who of American greats.

James A.Michener decided to use the GI Bill to take his chances at becoming a writer. The now-famous novelist said it perhaps best when he recently described the law as . . . "one of the two or three finest Congress has ever passed since our Constitution took effect."