Who Serves in the Military Today?

Three of the four candidates in the upcoming election have a son who has either served in Iraq or soon will: Jimmy McCain, Beau Biden, and Track Palin. (And the children of the fourth candidate, Barack Obama, are a bit too young for military duty.)

Is this sheer happenstance?

I am guessing that when Obama was preparing to pick his running mate, it was important to counter John McCain‘s military bona fides — and Joe Biden fit the bill at least in some small part because his son Beau is a captain in the Delaware Army National Guard, soon to be deployed to Iraq. When McCain chose his vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin‘s chances certainly weren’t hurt by having a son who’s an Army Pfc. about to be sent to Iraq.

If you randomly take any four American families, it would certainly be anomalous if three of them had a son in Iraq. (The U.S. military currently has about two million people in uniform.) But isn’t it even more anomalous that three of four families like these — i.e., families of considerable means — have sons in Iraq? Isn’t the modern military full of men and women from low-income backgrounds, with a far higher minority representation than in the general population, who join up only because they have no other viable career possibilities?

That is certainly a piece of conventional wisdom that I have heard voiced; which is why a new report titled “Who Serves in the U.S. Military? The Demographics of Enlisted Troops and Officers” is so surprising. It was compiled by Shanea J. Watkins and James Sherk at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis. I suspect that the Heritage Foundation’s imprimatur will raise skepticism among some readers, and I have several qualms myself with what is said and not said in the report, but the facts are very compelling.

The report measures the demographics of military personnel against the general U.S. population in four areas: household income, education level, racial and ethnic background, and regional origin. Here is the most surprising picture in the report:


So 50 percent of the enlisted recruits (i.e., not including the officers’ corps) come from families in the top 40 percent of the income distribution, while only 10 percent come from the bottom 20 percent. It is worth noting that the income information here is not perfect: the data do not include actual family income for each recruit, but rather use the median household income of the recruit’s home census tract. But still, one look at that graph tells you that the conventional image of a military full of poor kids doesn’t reflect the reality.

“These trends are even more pronounced in the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (R.O.T.C.) program,” reads the report, “in which 40 percent of enrollees come from the wealthiest neighborhoods — a number that has increased substantially over the past four years” (i.e., since the September 11 attacks).

Here are some of the report’s other claims:

1. “American soldiers are more educated than their peers. A little more than 1 percent of enlisted personnel lack a high-school degree, compared to 21 percent of men 18 to 24 years old [in the general population].”

2. “Contrary to conventional wisdom, minorities are not overrepresented in the military service.”

3. “The facts do not support the belief that many American soldiers volunteer because society offers them few opportunities. The average enlisted person or officer could have had lucrative career opportunities in the private sector.”

Point No. 1, while technically true, is also misleading. As the report states elsewhere, “The military requires at least 90 percent of enlisted recruits to have high-school diplomas” (not counting GED’s) and, furthermore, the Army itself requires a high-school diploma or equivalent, with a 2.5 G.P.A.

So high-school dropouts are, for the most part, not getting into the military. In fact, if you consider “low education” a proxy for “low income,” that would seem to explain most of the high-income effect we see in the graph above. This doesn’t make the graph any less true; it just makes the report’s language needlessly boastful.

Point No. 2 is particularly interesting, especially as you dig further into the report’s data. Whites and blacks make up almost exactly the same percent of the enlisted personnel as they do in the general population.

The recruit-to-population ratio for whites is 1.06, and for blacks it is 1.08. Hispanics, meanwhile, are significantly underrepresented among enlisted personnel, with a recruit-to-population ratio of just 0.65. (It should also be said that this entire report groups together personnel from all four service branches, which means that the aggregate numbers do not necessarily represent any one of the branches separately.)

It’s also interesting to note that blacks are overrepresented in R.O.T.C. commissions, with a 1.21 officer-to-population ratio, compared to 1.02 for whites. United States Military Academy graduates, however, are a different story entirely. Just over 80 percent of West Point graduates are white (a 1.12 officer-to-population ratio), while only 5.5 percent are black (a 0.5 ratio). Also, nearly 18 percent of West Point cadets come from a family with a household income of more than $100,000. Granted, West Point is an elite institution and is bound to attract elites.

There’s a further important point that can’t be found in this report but can be found in another one, which compiles race-specific U.S. military fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of March 1, 2008, there were 2,964 white fatalities in Iraq, representing 74.8 percent of the total; in the general population, meanwhile, whites in that age cohort make up about 62 percent of the population, so whites are overrepresented among Iraqi fatalities. Blacks and Hispanics, meanwhile, are both underrepresented; the same is true in Afghanistan.

Point No. 3 is almost an ideological argument rather than a factual one. But still, this much is clear: when discussing the U.S. military in the aggregate, the common notion that the military is a stop of last resort, increasingly staffed by low-income desperadoes with slim future prospects, cannot be right.

If the report has one significant ideological point to make, it’s that military participation has a huge patriotic/service component that is commonly overlooked, especially in portions of the country where military representation is far below average. (In the Northeast, for instance, the recruit-to-population ratio is just 0.73, compared to 1.19 in the South.)

We obviously haven’t heard the last word on patriotism or service in the current campaign. And many of the words to come will certainly be loaded. If nothing else, here’s hoping that people — no matter which side they’re arguing — will take a look at some of the numbers in this report before leaping to conclusions.

[Note: I recently discussed this topic on The Takeaway.]

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  1. Tom Best says:

    But Obama isn’t too young to have served himSELF. But he didn’t, did he?

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  2. Daniel says:

    This is old news.

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  3. charles says:

    This isn’t a surprise to anyone who has family in the military. Thanks for the post.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 4
  4. Adam S says:

    How does this report mesh with previous reports that in the last couple years recruitment has allowed much more non-high school graduates than previously.

    From CNN.com last month “A study issued by the National Priorities Project released in January found that while the Army has a goal that 90 percent of recruits be high school graduates, it hadn’t met that percentage since 2004. In the 2007 budget year, the Project found that only 71 percent of soldiers entering the service had graduated.” http://tinyurl.com/4edbkj

    The CNN report talks about the army working hard to get as many of the recruits as possible to get GEDs. My own cousin dropped out of high school at 16 and joined at 17 with a GED. It looks to me like the Heritage Foundation is combining high school graduates and GEDs to get the numbers they are looking for. My guess is that if you seperated it, the military would have higher than average rates of GEDs.

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  5. NM says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  6. Will says:

    $43,000 a year in household income (the bottom of the middle quintile) is not a lot — just enough to make sure you kids won’t qualify for a Pell grant. The top quintile bottoms out at $65,000 — which means you’d be parting with 20 percent of your household income to send one child to a state university (at ~$13,000 for nine months in tuition and board).

    For example, my wife is in college, we have 2-year-old son and I got a raise last to $16/hour … and because of that raise she’s already losing part of her Pell grant because our income is too high.

    People are happy to serve because it’s patriotic and allows them to see the world. But even middle class families have trouble paying for college if they haven’t set aside vast amounts of their income.

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  7. MikeM says:

    Median household income within a census tract is no proxy for actual household income – this is actually quite obvious!

    Take the “Quintile 4″ bar. If a town of 20,000 people has a median income level within this quintile, and sends a handful of enlistees into the service, how many actually have a household income over $50k? It could be NONE. It could be the poor kids from a mixed town who are going into the army because they see their classmates going to college and want something approaching comparable. This explains the ROTC effect only too well.

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  8. Mike says:

    As a former Army recruiting company commander, I feel like I can address this from a couple of perspectives.

    First, the general qualifications for military service remain relatively high: criminal record must be researched and reviewed; no more than two misdemeanor offenses are permitted, and that takes significant work. As noted, education levels must be high – very few GED or alternative school graduates are accepted. This by itself excludes many in the lower economic levels; lack of education and higher criminal records bar you from services.

    My observation was that the military still attracts high level recruits (motivated by patriotism and service to country) and low level recruits (those with few options, but clean records) and was missing out on the middle ground – those who might otherwise join are now looking harder at taking on larger student loan burdens, attending less expensive schools (junior or community colleges for 1-2 years) and technical or vocational training (particularly with some large corporate programs such as UPS) rather than military service.

    As to point number 2; many of the casualties are disproportionately from the support services – IED’s that target logistics and support personnel. Anecdotally, combat roles in the Army and Marine corps are still disproportionately filled by whites. I would suggest that the racial and economic demographics would look very different if sliced across services and further to look at direct combat roles vs. support roles.

    The lack of “force on force” engagements and the prevalence of IED’s as casualty sources would result in a higher percentage of non-white casualties.

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