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.]

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



  1. Tom Best says:

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

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 16 Thumb down 20
  2. Daniel says:

    This is old news.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4
  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.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 5
  5. NM says:

    Re: patriotism and serving in the army, I have to ask this.

    How much more patriotic are the brave US soldiers serving in the occupation of Iraq, compared to the brave Waffen SS serving in the occupation of France 65 years ago?

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 27 Thumb down 30
  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.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 2
  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.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 4
  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.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 2
  9. JakeR says:

    Tom Best is concerned that Obama hasn’t served (presumably in wars for which he was eligible) but who was a little long in the tooth (31) when Gulf War I started. There’s no draft now, as there was when George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, et al. in the current administration and among the neocons and other chicken hawks such as Rush Limbaugh who are approximately my age and who managed to avoid the Vietnam war in which I served as a volunteer. If Mr. Best has not served in time of war, we can discount his quibble entirely. If he has, I salute him but nonetheless hold Obama’s age is a reasonable excuse.

    Adam S raises questions that deserve answers. As my grampa used to say, “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.”

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0
  10. Tristan says:

    Tom (1), do you really want you Harvard graduates enlisting in the military?

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  11. Chance says:

    I don’t have a study or numbers to back up my opinion, but my experience in 8 years of service was that the vast majority of my fellow enlisted were enlisting for college money (or to pay off college loans) because they could not easily afford it otherwise. This motivation was followed by being a young mother or father. I am not suggesting patriotism was not a factor, but for most it was not the primary factor.

    As far as whites being over represented in fatalities, I have always heard that this is mainly a holdover from earlier decades where (rightly or wrongly) it was believed that minority soldiers were being used as cannon fodder. When the all volunteer military was instituted, many minority enlistees chose to serve in service support units instead of combat units.

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  12. AS says:

    I would guess that the overall proportion of Hispanic representation is rather high for the population in the Army, based on my personal experience–and that the Air Force and Navy–which are rather white in comparison–bring down that statistic considerably.

    Another thing this doesn’t address is whether they’re counting as “some college” online courses that soldiers are able to take to up their promotion points. This is a great thing, but doesn’t really prove their point that soldiers are already in a good social position before they enlist. While there are people who join for purely patriotic reasons, I would say over half of the Army enlisted people I know joined to get out of a crappy situation economically or socially.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0
  13. Tom K. says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Household_income_in_the_United_States The bottom fifth have fewer children than the middle and top. It won’t account for everything but it helps adjust for the skewed chart, I doubt it’s as drastic as it seems. It would have been better to see a 6th quintile $125-250k

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1
  14. Ezzie says:

    When this came out I noticed something particularly interesting about the maps that I think is worthy of note. Money quote:

    What is striking is that on the graphic which shows the state numbers of enlisted personnel the bottom rungs are filled almost entirely by liberal states (color is from the 2004 election):

    50) [red] North Dakota (48th ROTC, 41st Academy)

    49) [red] Utah*

    48) [blue] Rhode Island

    47) [blue] Massachussets (43rd ROTC, 44th Academy)

    46) [blue] New Jersey (40th ROTC)

    45) [blue] Connecticut

    44) [blue] New York (47th ROTC)

    43) [blue] Delaware

    42) [blue] Minnesota (41st ROTC, 40th Academy)

    41) [blue] Vermont

    40) [blue] California (50th ROTC, 43rd Academy)

    * Presumably, Utah has low numbers because the Mormon population tends not to join the military.

    Of 19 blue states in the 2004 election, 9 are in the bottom 11. Of 31 red states, just two are. (Actually, after [red] Mississippi at 39 come [blue] Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Maryland – making it 12 of the bottom 15.)

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  15. holycalamity says:

    To follow up on Adam S.’s comment, I’d like to see if/how the numbers differ for recruits since 2003. It used to be that military service was a way for middle class kids to earn money for college while seeing the world and getting some training, and the likelihood of actual combat was low. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the numbers change since combat became a very real possibility, and the services are desperate to meet recruitment numbers and racing to the bottom.

    And I agree with MikeM at #7 – they seem to be playing games with the vague median income of “neighborhoods” – the same census tract could contain both wealthy neighborhoods and the proverbial “wrong side of the tracks”. My purely anecdotal observation from growing up in the South is that in rural areas, wealthy neighborhoods often abut poor ones, skewing income data even in small areas.

    Anyhow, I’ve learned to take any study published by right wing think tanks with a sack of salt. They’re just like real academics, but they think peer reviews are unpatriotic and elitist.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2
  16. holycalamity says:


    I find that red state/blue state designations tend to be misleading. If you look at the 2004 election maps created by the University of Michigan (http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/) you’ll notice that voting patterns aren’t defined so much by region, but by population density.

    Blue States overall have a higher concentration of population in cities, while Red States have larger rural populations – basically, it’s less a matter of coasts vs heartland, but city/suburbs vs rural.

    I think the takeaway is that the military draws more from rural areas than cities.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  17. Tigger says:

    Tom K

    A sixth quintile?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0
  18. Andrew says:

    I wonder how many people who have enlisted from “wealthy” neighborhoods are not the wealthy ones of the area, but others that happen to fall into a geographic area with high incomes that boost the average. While it shouldn’t completely alter the trend, it should change the numbers. But that would be new data that we don’t have collected.

    The comparison of family income vs area average income would be interesting to see.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  19. bort says:

    $700 Billion Dollar Bailout Good For Economy

    WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s the largest government bailout in U.S. history and two days after it was introduced to the Americans paying for it, the proposal is still largely a mystery.

    Among the unanswered questions: How will the government mop up the bad mortgage debt on banks’ books, who will run the process and how much will it cost?


    Key elements of the plan remain in flux as behind closed doors Democrats demand modifications that would provide more help for ordinary Americans in return for bailing out the country’s financial giants.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  20. Shane says:

    Tristan (10),

    Yes. I would like to see Harvard grads, and others from the socioeconomic elite enlisted in the military.

    It would further improve the quality of personnel in the military, as well as give a number of our future leaders exactly what it means to send young men in harm’s way. The current generation of leadership had Vietnam – I fear that tomorrow’s leaders will not understand war except from a sterile academic perspective.

    For what it’s worth, over 50% of my platoon has bachelor’s degrees, and most of us intend to pursue graduate degrees with the GI Bill benefits. Certainly unusual, but not unheard of.

    Finally, I’d like to offer a hypothesis from my anecdotal observations – many of the well-off choose service in the military because they are seeking adventure, and are secure in the idea of taking a break before starting their “real” careers. Not to say military service isn’t a real career, but some treat a term of enlistment like it’s a year backpacking through Europe.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  21. Scotty Time says:

    Many will talk…but few will walk.

    What is it about our comfortable existence here in the states that makes us disparage military service and/or George Bush’s war(s)?

    I think the Atlantic and Pacific oceans have protected us from the exigencies of the “real world” since our nation’s inception.

    To all of my friends at Columbia, et al, who disparage ROTC and military service in general: Apply your ideals and morality in a country where the rule of law is nothing more than an esoteric notion and your life means nothing if you can’t fight for it.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  22. J.I.M. says:

    Because Utah ranks first in youngest population of all states, Utah should rank last in ratio of enlisted to population. Half of the state is under 21, if not 18. Utah also ranks highest in education per capita, so its ROTC units at the Utah schools (BYU, UofU, USU, etc) produce more officers, who aren’t on the study. Last time I looked you had to be 17 to join up. Most Utahns are too young. Also, Utah is first in longevity from the most recent census to calculate the number (1990 census). So they have the oldest population at the same time as the youngest. Utah has a lot of babies, a lot of old folk, and a lot of officers.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  23. Paul says:

    Following up on Mike’s (8) comment, the study does not control for educational attainment and criminal records — both of which are requirements for enlistment.

    A better statistic would be the ratio of recent high school graduates going into military service versus going directly to college versus directly entering the workforce. That would give a better measure of whether the military was acting as an “employer of last resort” or last ditch scholarship option.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  24. Helen says:

    Maybe I missed it, but it looks like the quintiles are created by splitting the population of ENLISTED soldiers into fifths, rather than overlaying the distribution of enlisted soldiers over the quintiles for “neighborhood income levels” of the entire nation. From the census (here: http://pubdb3.census.gov/macro/032007/hhinc/new05_000.htm), the lower limit of the top fifth was 97K in 2007, not 65K. It seems to me (and Tom K sort of started down this train of thought) that we aren’t even seeing the “upper” tail of this table (b/c there are vanishly small numbers of enlisted soldiers from such neighboroods).

    That said, if they are only trying to argue that the ENLISTED population is a diverse group, socio-economically speaking, they get a giant “WELL DUH!!” from me (the wife of a former Army officer).

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1
  25. RW says:

    In full disclosure, Biden’s son is going over as an attorney for his company or division (I’m not sure what the particular term is, sorry.)

    The pick of Biden because his son ‘serves’ overseas is a little hard to believe. I DO NOT discredit his service whatsoever but to infer that he is fighting for his country is slightly misleading…

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
    • Robert Demarest says:

      Biden’s son has resigned for the benefit of the service. Sorry I cannot remember the date when this hit the newspapers. Cocaine use forced the military to ask for his resignation. I am sue this will have an effect on his ability to return to his job as a Prosecutor.

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  26. BT says:

    Consider me stunned. I am going to need more than this study to be convinced. Is there any similar study out there that either confirms or rebukes this article’s claims?

    As recently as the 9/11/08 during the Service Forum at Columbia, Judy Woodruff of PBS asked both McCain and Obama about military recruiting standards and poor people serving more than their rich folks.

    TRANSCRIPT HERE: http://tinyurl.com/4s6pvj


    WOODRUFF: Senator, still on the subject of military, in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we know that recruiting has gotten harder. The qualifications for joining the Army have been lowered today. Thirty percent of new enlistees don’t have high school diplomas. That’s the highest percentage ever.

    The percentage of young people who are either black, Hispanic, or who come from a lower income household is disproportionately high in the military. All this, while the sons and daughters of privilege, for the most part, your sons excluded, don’t have to consider military service.

    We have the greatest fighting army in the world, I think everyone would agree. But is there something about this picture that you think needs to change, this social imbalance?

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  27. Ibrahim Abdul says:

    I blame Bowling for Columbine for the misrepresentation.

    Thanks for the post.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  28. David Chowes, New York City says:

    If the Heritage Foundation’s study is methodologically sound and not conducted with an ax to grind which might distort the results — well, I am truly surprised

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
  29. Ken says:

    When IQ is screened you are gonna keep out the poorest. Is this news?

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  30. Avi Rappoport says:

    I wonder what the education and income demographics are for the mercenary parts of the outside contractors. And in particular, whether the casualty percentages are in the same general range.

    I don’t know what the answer is, or even what I think the answer should be. But it’s an interestng problem to consider.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  31. Chris says:

    I would think that the primary reason for #2 is #1. In fact, separating the race data from the education and income data seems a bit dishonest if the report attempts to use racial statistics from the general population as the control group for #2. The more accurate control groups would be either racial statistics from those who have at least graduated high school or income statistics by race.

    When you change the racial comparison’s control group from Heritage’s recruit-to-population to recruit-to-high school graduate (which is far more meaningful considering the Army’s limitation on non-high school graduates), the data shows a bit of a different picture. Blacks make up less than 10.6% of high school graduates and Hispanics less than 8.8%– a number far below their representation among the total population.

    The change in the former is relatively small, yet not insignificant. Using the 2006 data, the recruit-to-high school graduate ratio among black students rises from 1.04 to 1.17. Among Hispanics, it would likely skyrocket from the current 0.65 if similarly adjusted. The adjustment is crucial because the current ratio is completely meaningless seeing as it lumps in a sizable group of people that are not typically permitted to join the military (high school dropouts).

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1
  32. Phill says:

    I’d be curious to know how those who enlist in the services rank in their graduating class. The lack of post high school education options maye be predicated on academic performance, not socioeconomic limitations.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  33. BobC says:

    To 5. It varies. I served with people from die-hard patriotic to extremely anti-government.

    To 30: Broadly speaking, there are two types. Some are Ex-US special forces. They don’t seem dumb and their street/combat smarts is amazing. There is also a lot EX-foreign special forces. Their educational standards are, well, foreign to me.

    To 32: I would say it depends on the field. I was #8 of 500. Most of the people in my field dropped out of college due to money or lack of interest. In a facility 100 feet away, that field had a high occurance of GEDs.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  34. Joel S. says:

    Great post! Looking forward to more statistics on the military.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  35. Rick H from Connecticut says:

    I grew up in Quintile 5, albeit on the bottom side of it. Serving in the military was quite foreign to me. Everyone finished high school and went to college. I went to a Top 30 college and played a Div I sport. SNORE. Got bored and joined the Army, first enlisting and then joining ROTC. I somehow got awarded a 2-year scholarship. When I finished school I had paid off many of my frosh/soph loans and junior/senior year were free. I was instantly financially leaps and bounds ahead of my peers. Yay, ra-ra, trips to Iraq as an infantry officer. I’m now getting my MBA (to start) at a top 50 public school b/c they waive tuition for veterans and the GI Bill covers life, gas, food, etc. I’m working my Fortune 50 management job but wonder, “Why bother? Finish school.” In summation — degree from Top 30 school, MBA from Top 50, probably get my JD at Top 25 state school. All for free. People are nuts not to serve. I didn’t sign up for the school money, but will not look a gift horse in the mouth.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  36. Robert says:

    I’m not really convinced by their methodology. Census data from 2004 (http://pubdb3.census.gov/macro/032005/hhinc/new05_000.htm) shows that family households are concentrated in higher income quintiles. 88% of households in the highest quintile were family households, while only 41% of households in the lowest quintile were. Could it be that more recruits come from higher-income neighborhoods because there are more 18-24 year-olds from higher-income neighborhoods?

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1
  37. Joseph says:

    Americans today view military service the same way they look at teaching or social work. All three are respected careers that people take as a way to serve their communities. It is time to raise millitary pay. If teachers can make $70,000, why not millitary personnel.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  38. Mike B says:

    I am actually disappointed that the Military is undeserving the lower income brackets. The military is a great way for those with all sorts of disadvantages to get skills, self-respect and a reasonable amount of money. It is interesting to see that with its higher standards of professionalism the military seems to have put itself out of reach of those needing the most help.

    It is valid to debate the merits of using the armed forces as a social service organization, especially the cold war practice of using military as an alternative for prison for distressed youth. Gang infiltration, discipline problems and drug use all all things the armed forces would probably rather do without. Still, if the poor are finding themselves excluded even from military service what opportunities are left for upward mobility?

    I read about one large factor in recent times is that the recent unpopular wars and the republican administration has caused certain minority community leaders to discourage their youth from enlisting in the military as a way to get ahead economically. This would explain the skew towards more “patriotic” or middle class economic motivations (tuition assistance).

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  39. Gary says:

    I live in Virginia, which has a large concentration of military families (because we have a vast Navy base, and we’re home to the Pentagon). The bulk of young people I know in the military are college graduates. They’re also the kids of those who have served. The military provides a pretty good career if you’re smart, stay in, and work your way up. If there is in fact a large number of people entering the military who have parents who served, logic would dictate that they are at least middle class. Many of them retired from the military, and used their skills in consulting roles… some of them did very very well for themselves…

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  40. Chris says:

    I spent 8 years in the military and while my service is 3 decades in my past, what I observed is the following:

    1) Most of those entering the military when I did did so to avoid the draft and Vietnam. Had there not been a draft some would have enlisted for other reasons at some other time. I would have enlisted absent a military draft because I had no other options and my prospects were incredibly bleak.

    2) Those who enlisted after elimination of the draft did so because the opportunities in the military were greater than alternatives.

    3) While there was a level of patriotism, my peers simply wanted to do what was required of them.

    4) The military — at least where I was (submarines) — took ordinary people and accomplished extraordinary things. The quality of leadership — officers and senior enlisted personnel was remarkable. The senior enlisted leaders were particularly impressive because of their humble backgrounds.

    5) The personal sacrifices of those in military service and their wives (and other family members, I suppose) is something you can talk about but not fully appreciate unless you’ve experienced it.

    6) While off-topic, transitioning from the military to civilian life for those who have had many years of service is apparently quite difficult. My friends who retired with 25 – 30 years of service are still trying to find their ways. It’s sad to see so many have so much trouble and never really find their calling. I suspect that they would return to military now if they could because it was the only place they’ve ever been where their skills and talents were truly valued and the only work place where they felt important.

    [Many times on quite midnight watches far from home when thoughts are serious and emotional barriers are lifted causing people to share more than is typical , several friends and shipmates at various times said essentially the same thing, “I never had enough to eat or had more than a couple sets of clothes and two pairs of shoes until I joined the navy.” There were also quite a number of shipmates who talked in vague terms of hostile parents/step parents and the need to escape that environment in order to survive. As one shipmate put it, “There are lots of different hands in a deck of cards. Some get good cards and start with lots of chips on the table. Some simply do the best they can with the mess they’re dealt and the little bit they have in their pockets.”]

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  41. Brent says:

    If I remember correctly, a few years ago Freakonomics ran a blog item regarding the military and population representation. I think it was around the time Rep. Rangel tried to reinstitute the draft. I have tried to find it with the search function, but failed.

    At that time I wrote a comment that referenced an article in the WSJ which discussed a study similar to this one which had similar results. Basically, all of the conventional wisdom regarding members of the military: That the poor, the uneducated, and minorities, are overrepresented in its ranks; was false.

    I wish I could find it. Does anyone else remember that blog entry?

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  42. JY says:

    I am currently in the ARNG and have an MA in economics and I am working on my Ph.D. I have known people who have *enlisted* in the RA after they had received their MA, in one case after recieving an MA from Yale. Of course, these cases are not the norm, and are partially a product of our MOS.

    However, those few cases aside, I think that the ARNG and AR making up a large portion of the whole army mat have a significant amount to do with this finding. I would think the patriotic effect probably has a lot of sway for the reserve components, since the opportunity cost for private sector attainment of joining the guard is less than the regular army. It would be interesting to see the breakdown for active and reserve components for all services.

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  43. Natasha says:

    The incomes are not adjusted for cost of living. Inner city recruits’ “neighborhoods” have a higher average income due to higher costs of living. I suspect they are overrepresented in the sample (or the military in general).

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  44. CandyKay says:

    >>>Re: patriotism and serving in the army, I have to ask this.

    How much more patriotic are the brave US soldiers serving in the occupation of Iraq, compared to the brave Waffen SS serving in the occupation of France 65 years ago?

    — Posted by NM>>>

    The difference, NM, is that you can write this kind of comment without having someone knocking on your door in the middle of the night.

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  45. Colin says:


    I think Tristan’s point was not that they absolutely should not serve in the armed forces, just that this may not be the best use of our human capital. There may be capacities in which they will provide greater benefit for the nation as a whole than they would if they were enlisted in the armed forces

    To extend the argument, our war efforts would have be worse off if the younger Manhattan Project scientists were fighting in the Pacific instead of engineering the bomb.

    There are many ways to serve one’s country, and not all of them are in military uniform.

    That said, I doubt the argument extends to all Harvard grads. But it is worth considering.

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  46. Mark H. says:

    I would glad serve, but I’m gay and they won’t let me.

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  47. John says:

    Utah has a low rate because a significant percentage of military age men are on LDS missions for two years. After you’ve spent two years serving you tend to want to get on with college and such.

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  48. ldm says:

    NM @5 – What unmitigated gall to compare the American troops in Iraq to the Waffen SS.

    I will grant you that some (considerable?) portion of Iraqis might see our troops as an occupying force.

    However, their actions have never even approximated the actions of the Waffen SS anywhere in Europe, Abu Ghraib included. Look into the Malmedy massacre

    And the Waffen SS recruited members having strong personal commitments to Nazi ideology and also partially on a racial basis – this info from Wikipedia.

    Another American Army of Occupation did a very professional and successful job in Japan so equating any American forces to the Waffen SS shows either your insensitivity or lack of historical knowledge and frame of reference or all of these.

    Shame on you.


    PS – I served as part of an ‘Army of Occupation’ in Korea 1961-62 so I personally object to your characterization.

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  49. Erik says:

    Of course, all 5 quintiles fall within/below the candidates’ $250k definition of middle class.

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  50. Ian says:

    My hunch is that those in the lower quintiles are more likely to have a “serious” criminal record, and less likey to have as good an education.

    In other words, they’re under-represented in the military because the military won’t take them, or doesn’t recruit them as much.

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  51. roseann says:

    Hey Obama goes where the money is Politics. Patriotism is not high on his list.

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  52. captain democracy says:

    Bring the draft back and joblessness and homelessness disappear.

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  53. Anu Koshal says:

    You overlooked the most obvious flaw in the Heritage Foundation’s report. The graph shows individuals who enlisted in the U.S. military in the years 2006 and 2007. If it is in fact true that most lower income and minorities enlist not because of patriotism but because of economic and career opporunity, then it would make sense the fewer lower income and minorities would enlist during a time of war (i.e. during the years 2006 and 2007). If one is joining the military for economic reasons, then joining at a time when you know you’ll be shipped overseas into battle makes much less sense. But if you are joining for patriotic reasons, then it makes sense that you enlist during a time of war. This data, far from showing us that individuals tend to enlist in the military for patriotic reasons rather than for economic reasons, may in fact show the opposite. As with all statistical models, the real answer lies in developing the sample.

    A more comprehensive study would include information as to who enlists during times of peace as well as times of war.

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  54. Jen says:

    Hubby was definately a quartile 5 when he enlisted in 2002. Middle class San Francisco, a rapidly disappearing demographic. Hispanic to boot.

    He joined because school just wasn’t doing it for him, and he wanted a secure job, with benefits that paid well (when a geographical batchlor in SF, he made far more than the locally stationed higher ranks above him) and would later help with school. Him joining paid for my final year in school, as my parents couldn’t support me once my dad was laid off.

    Joining the military is a good option if you aren’t going to finish college any time soon. If you’re going to dropout – enlist. With benefits in hand and a contract end date in sight (ha!) you’ll be back in school where you started, unlike balancing work, school and loans. (Just don’t hold your breath about the end date…)

    It’s far far easier for friends and family in the upper quartiles to understand you dropped out of college to join the Army for the GI bill, than dropped out to flip burgers. Upper quartiles are more likely to know and push for their veteran’s benefits, and have them be a reason for joining.

    With Iraq dying down, the new GI bill only increase this demographic trend. It will fully pay for school and living expenses. I for one can’t wait for it.

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  55. Jim says:

    I know it’s a difficult concept but if you check your emotions, political views and esoteric view of war for two seconds you will realize that the men and women in the Military stand between you and a dangerous and violent world.

    If you haven’t visited second and third world countries, get on a plane and visit them to actually experience how the vast majority of the world lives. You will then have a better appreciation for our country, your freedom and the troops that put their lives on the line to keep it that way.

    To the JA that compared our troops to Nazi troops occupying France during WWII. If you have an education, ask for your money back. If you don’t have an education, pick up a history book and read it before trying to connect those dots again.

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  56. Barron Laycock says:

    Any serious student of scientific research has learned to be suspect of anything emanating from the Heritage Foundation, an entity funded by ultra conservative Republican sources. To have a highest fifth composed of income that ranges from $65,000 to $250,000 badly skews the results, since many working class families make this much by combining incomes of multiple wage earners. To lump them into a category that includes lawyers, physicians, and stockbrokers hardly provides us with a meaningful statistical category.

    While it is certainly true that many of our volunteers are white and come from middle class families, it says nothing about the role they play once serving. Since nine out of ten volunteers never actually see combat, and since there are also differential roles based on service (with the Navy and US Air Force members experiencing significant less risk than Army and Marine recruits, we need much more detail to understand what the statistics actually mean. A much better indication of risk associated with social standing would be to compare combat tours, violent deaths and war-related injuries to race, social class, and education level. I suspect such a review would reveal a much different result.

    Just as there are different reasons for choosing or not choosing to enlist, so are there differential outcomes for people. Some white recruits enlist because they qualify for high-tech training opportunities which not only help them in terms of career and personal gain, but also keep them far from the risk and repeated hardships associated with infantry and armor assignments. We need to know much more to understand just what these statistics mean.

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  57. Robert W. Parson says:

    I have only seen the one chart and your conclusions so I cannot comment on the Heritage Foundation report. You are proper to indicate that they pay people to produce reports which usually fall on the “Right” side of the political equation.

    What I do know is that the military recruiters for the largest component, the Army,who has suffered the most casualties (along with the Marines), has upped their bonuses and reduced their standards to meet their recruitment goals, not exceed them, which they will have to to increase those two components, as is desired by the Bush Admin. Secondly,the West Point classes of 2000-2002 (and probably now 2003)are leaving in historically high percentages (50%+) after their initial 5 year obligation. These facts are part and parcel of the stress on the ground forces caused by the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the professional army, less than 1% of US population as you point out, who faces multiple deployments.You ought to look into this.

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  58. Robert says:

    What Anu Koshal, #53, said.

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  59. Arie Jacobi says:

    The first thing I noticed was the way the chart divides up the Quintiles! The first group covers 0 to $33,267. The second spans $8,771 the third $9,087, the fourth $13,903 and the fifth $181,301!

    There might be a perfectly good reason to cleaver the data like this, but it’s hard to be surprised when the largest group has the greatest representation.

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  60. Vermando says:

    One quibble / question – did they control for those neighborhoods which actually have kids of military age, either directly or through a proxy such as age? I ask this because I think that, in my area, people progressively move to more expensive areas and houses over their lifetime as their incomes increase. E.g., the poorest quintile is partly people with bad jobs, but also partly people who are just starting out in their careers and who are thus less likely to have children of military age. Draw an average income graph of a typical male head-of-household and you see that it increases over his lifetime, compound that because your house’s worth is more a measure of your accumulated wealth than your income from any one year, and you will see why these facts can lead to different inferences than the ones which the authors of the report and this blog draw.

    Otherwise, quite interesting stuff. It would be great to see their actual data set. The conclusion of the study does not surprise me, as I went to the wealthiest high school in my area and we sent plenty of kids to the military. On the other hand, I’m from the South, so that could also explain my skewed perspective. All the more reason for them to get the data right!

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  61. Jacques René Giguère says:

    to ldm # 48

    You certainly served with honor and distinction but history is written by the victors who only talks about let’s say Malmedy.

    In July 1944, for example, a unit of the 2nd armored division was awarded a medal for a “victory in a small battle”. The citation duly noted that all the 119 german deads had been shot in the chest in a regular pattern. Guess that the brass let them know that they got away with it but just don’t do it again…

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  62. Barry says:

    Re: Point number 3.

    So this means that my suspicions were correct. Soldiers are not blameless, having no other option than joining the military. They are privileged, xenophobic, racist, and imperialist individuals raised in a culture that nurtures violence, and they have opted for the best way to practice violence in a context that appears “legitimate” and “patriotic.” Support the troops?

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  63. Dan-O says:

    Wait a minute…when I attended an elite Northeastern liberal arts college, everybody “knew” that the military was a big scam designed to make minorities and poor people fight and die for the evil imperialist oil-war. What is going on here–could it be possible that most of my professors and fellow students were wrong?!?

    Tristan #1/Colin #45: That’s not the first time I’ve heard your argument: “You’re joining the Marines? Why don’t you join the State Department, wouldn’t you be able to better serve your country there?”

    You both believe that Harvard grads are too smart for the military. I don’t think you’d make such a ridiculously ignorant assertion if you knew how intellectually challenging our job is, regardless of career field, especially when deployed.

    Just gonna throw this out there: What if, after graduating from Punahou in ’79, Sen. Obama had done 4 years as an enlisted soldier or Marine before Harvard? Even if he hadn’t deployed to combat (Beirut would have been an option if he served then), imagine how the very nature of this race would be changed. Would the Republicans be questioning his patriotism, toughness, or foreign policy chops? Just something to think about for all you smart, ambitious kids in Cambridge trying to figure out what to do when you graduate.

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  64. Dan-O says:

    Oops, just realized Sen. Obama went to Columbia undergrad, not Harvard.

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  65. Heather says:

    I’d serve too, but alas, no gays allowed. I’d be fourth-generation Air Force.

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  66. Johnny E says:

    I thought I read recently that 40% of enlisted ranks are minorities.

    In a high-tech disciplined well-trained military there is less room for grunts and cannon-fodder. They need people who can run computers and read the tech manuals. But lately the standards seem to be going down because of manpower needs. A different type of war might need that type soldier. The lower income potential recruits probably have more health issues.

    The Roosevelt families were active participants in the wars.



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  67. Timer says:

    I had the same question as 36.

    I would think that households with college age kids are much wealthier than average households, and probably more likely to own homes, etc.

    Does the typical 18-24 year old who joins the military come from a wealthier neighborhood than the typical 18-24 year old who doesn’t?

    It seems that somebody should be able to answer this question.

    Anyone up to the challenge?

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  68. san martin says:

    Sadly, the Iraq occupation has distorted the military service of our military, stressed the young men and women of all incomes, ages, and races, ended the lives or thousands, and severely damaged the lives of at least ten times the number of dead. For no good reason.

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  69. Christopher Raissi says:

    This report blatantly contradicts what I saw in my five years of service in the Marines and one year as a canvassing recruiter. Perhaps this is true if all is averaged together, but it is not true of the Marine Corps.

    When I was a recruiter, during interviews most kids would choose education benefits and the opportunity for a steady pay check with health care. Patriotism and a desire to serve were lower on the list of motivating factors. Once they hit recruit training and receive their indoctrination, they change their tune and all they want to talk about is service and patriotism.

    Another example is that last year, General Conway went on the record in the Marine Times talking about the disturbing downtrend in new African-American enlistments and commissions. He expressed concern that in twenty years we would see few black senior SNCOs and officers.

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  70. Rick says:

    This same point was made last year in a political science journal. I don’t have access to the article available online, but I think that it was in the one by Lawrence Korb and Sean Duggan, “An All-Volunteer Army? Recruitment and its Problems.” PS: Political Science and Politics, V. 40.3, 467-471. If it wasn’t this exact article (and I’m 90% sure it was), then it was another article in this journal (this issue, to be exact). And while you may not believe Heritage, the American Political Science Association is the professional organization for the discipline, and I don’t see them as having an “ax to grind.”

    While Korb was Assistant Secretary of Defense under Reagan, he is not right-leaning in the way that Heritage might be (e.g. Wikipedia has him on record as against the Iraq War and for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Take that for what it’s worth). So for those of you who are not convinced by Heritage, there are other people who concur about the general demographics of the US military.

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  71. John says:

    @ 10, 20, 45 RE: Harvard Grads in military:

    I graduated from Harvard in the mid-90’s and joined the Marines along with 5 of my classmates. Many more joined the other branches but 6 Marines (all officers, mostly artillery) out of 800 men in our class is pretty solid for the Kremlin on the Charles. It was certainly NOT a military-friendly campus.

    #45 Colin, you raise a good point. My battalion had a saying painted over the door to the barracks: “The nation that draws too great a distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.”

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  72. FP says:

    I joined the military (as an officer) a year and half ago out of an ivy league school and already I consider it the best thing I’ve done. Yes there are those who join for the opportunities. But the majority of those I’ve met, both enlisted and officer, joined because of a sense of patriotism and a desire to serve.

    I can tell you from my own experience, and I’m sure that my feelings are shared by others, that every day I spend in the military reinforces the reasons why I joined. My civilian friends may make more $$s than me, but the camaraderie and the feeling of satisfaction I get at the end of day from knowing that I contribute to make America better and safer is worth so much more to me than $$s.

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  73. Edzilla says:


    Considering that two purple hearts and a silver star were insufficient to stop the Republicans from questioning Kerry’s patriotism and toughness, I’m pretty sure nothing would work.

    Also, fighting in a war has virtually nothing to do with foreign policy. A really high-ranking position is certainly another story. But for the vast majority of people, I don’t see how the experience is a teaching tool for national diplomacy, beyond presumably being able to locate Vietnam on a map.

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  74. jhh says:

    Note to Ezzie. A quick Google search shows that only one red state, Texas, contributes signficantly more to the US treasury via taxes than it gets back. The blue states dominate the ranks of the net givers of money to the Feds, mainly because they are much more vibrant economies. This correlates with a lot of things, among them the fact that (except for Texas) the red states offer many fewer job opportunities than do the much wealther blue states. When you live in rural Tenn or WVa, the military looks like a better path to a better career than working in a mine or a 7/11. And this is indeed true, as many personal stories attest. jhh (Tennessee)

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  75. H Dizzle says:

    I’m marrying a Marine soon and noticed on an Army base that the families were mostly low income. I have been arguing the point for months now and finally there is data to dispute it.

    My first impression was that the quintiles are a strange way to divide income brackets. I would like to see a branch-by-branch division of the same study, as I still think my original hypothesis stands. I’m also interested in literacy in the armed forces and how literacy training could actually save DoD expenses (from the mistakes made).

    I’m very interested in more military statistics and economic theory on freakonomics!

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  76. fmr navy officer says:

    This is so amusing. My ex-wife was privately outspoken in expressing her opinion that all members of the military were losers who could find nothing better to do with their lives. Her family were polite when talking about my intended career, as if I had told them that I was a landfill manager.

    The Heritage Foundation data accurately tracks our respective backgrounds – I come from the rural South; she came from the Gold Coast of Connecticut.

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  77. Military Attorney says:

    RW at 25

    Military attorneys often find themselves near the front lines. Many are wounded or worse.

    They deserve special praise: an attorney could easily make an excellent salary and live a life of comfort outside the military. Those with law degrees who serve are heroes, just like everyone else who serves.

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  78. LtCol George W. Murray USMC (ret) says:

    Had Mr Dubner spent sufficient time in the Armed Forces, giving his best effort, his bias and ignorance might not be so pronounces.

    Something that appears quite lost on many citizens is a great lesson imparted to Marines, Rangers, and other Special Operations Forces; which is the difference between a problem and an inconvenience.

    Many thanks to the patriotic men, women, and families, who have served our Nation in-and-out of uniform, often at the expense of their personal lives. S/F

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  79. Matthew G. says:

    It is amazing how hard some people try to attack any study that refutes the “sending the poor and minorities” to war meme. They shake heads and mumble that it has to be fake, it can’t be real, smart white folks avoid the military and send the ‘po black folks’.

    I proudly serve with many people, from all walks of life, from all states, backgrounds, religious beliefs, political persuasions – currently on deployment in theater (OIF). The nation’s finest do serve, even with a few bad apples, the military is made of sterner stuff.

    We disagree on many things, but we work together and get the job done. Without us, your world would be much different, more terrifying and violent than you could imagine.

    We get used to being called nazi’s, stupid, warmongers – as well as poor, uneducated children. It depends on who is attacking the military and what “point” or “truth” they are attempting to convey.

    What matters most in the upcoming election is voting for the man with the best leadership, experience and judgment. If you feel that the guy you are voting for will not crumble under pressure and do what is right, no matter the consequences, then vote. If that man does not meet those criteria: then you are foolish to hand the keys to the largest economy and military machine to a lightweight.

    P.S. I come from a middle class family, I have my degree in IT, I’m an enlisted NCO, and when I get out I’m going to make more money because of my military experience.

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  80. Darren M says:

    From my personal experience, I think the lack of middle-class enlistment is largely based on upbringing. We’re “precious little snowflakes” who are considered too good to shop at Wal-Mart, let alone serve in the military. I’m 23 years old and I’ve tried enlisting. My parents were scared to death of the idea. Now I know everybody’s parents would be scared of the idea of losing a child in war, but I think my folks would have reacted the same way in peacetime and were against such a working-class career path, even though I had just flunked out of college.

    Eventually I was rejected for service for medical reasons. It’s very personal so I won’t specify the condition here, but suffice to say it is a non-obvious one that cost them $10,000 of their own money just to test for and definitely feeds into the “precious little snowflake” mentality.

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  81. Alex says:

    I served in the regular Army for four years and while he does say it encompasses all four services for point #2, the Army does indeed have a disproportionately high number of blacks compared to the general population.

    And yes(!), even as a fairly liberal person, I grow disgusted with people on the fringe who make the claim that people like me joined because we had no other options in life.

    As for the mention of the amount of education recruits initially have, there are more than enough opportunities to got to school while in the military after they may or may not have done well as adolescents.

    Our military represents a diverse and amazing cross-section of our nation and culture. I met people with graduate degrees who were enlisted grunts and officers who I had no idea how they made it through any educational institution.

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  82. DRK says:

    I’d like to see the raw numbers on this report. It does seem as if that fifth quintile is covering an awfully lot of territory. I would be a little surprised if high income families are sending a lot of kids into the military: I live in a wealthy suburb of Houston, Texas — Tom DeLay’s old district, in fact, a hotbed of Republicans and very vocal patriotism– and know very few people with a child who has enlisted or even become an officer. Long separations from family, personal danger, rampant sexual harassment, and no 401K make this a not very attractive career option unless you are badly off and really need a job. I’m the wife of a retired career military officer, and most of my husband’s peers in the military were people who were patriotic, sure — but they really needed a way to pay for college. Not impoverished, but their folks were not making $265,000, either.

    Incidentally, the posters who complain that Obama was not in the military don’t add that neither was Palin. Which a pity in Palin’s case, since she might well have benefited from the broadening effects of leaving Alaska, a thing she has seldom done, as far as I can see. Not sure where in the

    Constitution it says you have to have been in the military to be a President, however.

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  83. Wes P says:

    NM asks:

    How much more patriotic are the brave US soldiers serving in the occupation of Iraq, compared to the brave Waffen SS serving in the occupation of France 65 years ago?

    How well educated were the Waffen SS?

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  84. Sarah says:

    I agree with some previous posters that comparatively poor kids in wealthy neighborhoods are more likely to enlist than the wealthier kids in the same neighborhood. I saw that trend in my own family and neighborhood.

    I would also note that many kids who enlisted were the non-academic or ‘bad’ kids from wealthy families–a good college wasn’t realistic for them, and their families would not accept a community college or low wage work (which were valid alternatives for lower income kids). So, it was either a top tier school or the military.

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  85. Gregory says:

    Just as a side note – most of the Waffen-SS (everybody who went in 1943-1945, when it reached it’s largest size) was a conscript. Some Waffen-SS solders were conscripted before those dates as well, and some voluntarily joined a more “elite” unit as alternative to being drafted into Wehrmacht.

    To follow up, if NM really believes that his country’s military is as bad as Waffen-SS he’ll immediately cease paying taxes which pay for genocide they presumably are performing. Doing anything else would be materially supporting genocide, and be quite … evil.

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  86. dbr says:

    This seems basically right to me, but I would like to see more granularity in the analysis.

    I’ve done some research on who typically enlists in the Air Force, and the typical enlistee is a child of middle and upper-middle class parents who did not graduate college.

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  87. Nate says:

    Hey Tom Best. Military service isn’t the only way to serve your country-this coming from someone in the army also. Chew on that.

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  88. Daniel says:

    Why does the annual household income cap out at $246,333? The McCain, Biden, and Palin families all have annual household incomes higher than that. This whole thing seems to exclude actual rich people. No one ever argued that middle class people didn’t join the military in large numbers, especially the officer corps.

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  89. Nicole says:

    I just want to say thanks for the numbers. Having read Freakonomics, and appreciating Dubner’s logic, it will be nice to have this as one of the arguments I make when I approach my family about joining the Navy.

    By the way, I come from what has been most of my life a low income household. Until recently, most of my family has been solidly against my military goals. I have tried their route of getting a degree through financial aid, including some hefty loans, and I found that I am bored, uninterested in the other options I have and I am definitely unhappy with the amount of debt I’ve accrued.

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  90. Sean says:

    I have to address A TON of the arguments I see on here.

    First-The Heritage Foundation is a Right Wing Org., however they got the info from the military itself and anyone (with a lot of free time) can check it. The reason they do not have exact figures on incomes is due to the fact that the military does not track incomes, but they do track zip codes, race, gender, religion, etc…

    Second-Elite Schools should send people into the service, the dis-connect between the civilian elites and the military elites is huge and only getting bigger. The Military at least sends many of it’s people to the elites schools-Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, etc..for Post Grad Studies, no cross polination is done by the civilian side.

    Third-Patriotism is a factor but not a leading factor for all recruits, almost all of the people I have worked with and still work with in the service come in for a combination of reasons-patriotism, college, tradition, adventure, etc..what percentage each of those things plays in a persons choice to join is of course different for each person. The theory that most join for college is silly, all one has to do is look at the amount of unused money in the GI Bill every year and you can figure out pretty quickly that is not a primary motivator for why people join, it might be one reason but not the primary.

    Fourth-Comparing some of the things done by US Soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Nazis is almost silly and devoid of any reason. While things have happened that are horrible almost ALL of them were told up the chain of command by other soldiers and were being investigated by the Army CID or Navy NCIS before the News “broke” them open. Also, the incidents are few and far between and make headlines because they are few and far between.

    Fifth-The ASVAB is what really keeps a lot of the poor out, if you go to a crappy school system and cannot get a good education or perhaps drop out, then the chances of you getting into the service without a minimum score on the ASVAB and a GED Waiver are minimal. The ASVAB is also used to allow many without HS Degress to get in, ie; if you have a High ASVAB score you will find it easier to get a waiver to get into the service than you would without a high score.

    Sixth-(after this I will stop the numbers listing I swear! 😉 ) The racial makeup in the Military is just about what it is across the US but the Army tends to have a higher minority rate than the rest of the service’s and one theory is that due to the tradition of many blacks only getting a fair shake in the military back in the days when the US was very segragated it was a place that many blacks could go to and rise according to the merits of there work. This leads to many family members having a positive impact from the military and passing that feeling onto the next generation. Studies for recruitment have shown time and time again a major factor in a person joining the military is association with a family member or friend who recommended it to them.

    Anyway, the study is not bunk, it goes with what I have seen and the military has looked at but the study is a bit “boasting” in it’s own self-importance but otherwise, if you can get past the bluster, it is a very good study.

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  91. Sean says:

    Oh, almost forgot, MANY people have argued that it is only the poor that serve and that the middle class do not serve that much, it was even argued on CNN and these are people who should do SOME research. Basically the working, middle and upper middle class share the largest burden in the military and the bottom and tops ends of the economic spectrum share very little of it and well under the numbers they should serve at.

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  92. Antonio Lozada says:

    Mr. Dubner,

    As a student of economics and statistics, I’d have to say that the Heritage Foundation’s graphy is grossly deceptive and would probably make your comrade, Mr. Levitt, puke.

    Look at the intervals looked to establish each “quintile” of the population.
    Notice how ginormous the 5th quintile is. I find it HIGHLY UNLIKELY that there is a uniform distribution of recruits from 65k to 250k. If there is a single recruit with an income of 250k and the remaining 24.89% of the total earn between 65k and 70k, then the difference between using a quintile chart and a chart that splits the income ranges by 20k would tell completely different stories. What I’m saying is that while 65k is not “poor,” it’s also not rich. So maybe middle class families are overrepresented in the military BUT NOT THE WEALTHIEST FAMILIES. I would need to see the raw statistics to be sure, but there has to be a reason why the bottom quintile spans 33k, 2nd 19k, 3rd 9k, 4th 14k, but the 5th quintile encompasses 180k. OF COURSE, there’s going to be a significant portion of the recruits in that category. you might as well make the top category span from 30k to 250k and say that it comprises 90% of the recruits. Furthermore, go to the census bureau website and look at their stats (http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/income.html):
    Each figure represents the bottom of the range:
    Bottom quintile: 11,034
    2nd quintile: 28,636
    3rd quintile: 49,309
    4th quintile: 79,040
    top quintile: 169,633

    Why didn’t they use these ranges? It’s not for the sake of uniform ranges (as I explained before, each quintile in the Heritage Foundation’s chart is a different width, especially the huge top quintile). Because the graph would keep the bottom quintile relatively unchanged (a tiny portion of the population makes less than 11k), combines the 18.3% and 21.7% into the 2nd quintile (28k-49k), and then comprises the whole 24.3% of their 3rd quintile AND THE LOWER PART OF THEIR TOP QUINTILE (up to 79k) into their third quintile, will paint a very different picture.

    Given what I said earlier (although I’d need the raw figures), it’s possible for the a graph based on the SAME DATA, but using the Census Bureau (they should be objective right?) would look like this:

    Bottom quintile: 11,034-28,635: about 10%
    2nd quintile: 28,636-49,308: about 40%
    3rd quintile: 49,309 -79,039: between 25% and 50%
    4th quintile: 79,040-168,632: between 0% and 25%
    top quintile: 169,633+: between 0% and 25%

    The fact that the Heritage Foundation used such strange intervals leads me to believe that the figures for the top two quintiles (by the census bureau’s measure) would be tiny. A graph showing 50% OF RECRUITS IN THE BOTTOM TWO QUINTILES, 90% IN THE 2ND AND 3RD QUINTILES, AND ALMOST 100% IN THE BOTTOM 3 QUINTILES, WITH 0% IN THE TOP TWO QUINTILES would paint a different picture. Like I said before, it looks like middle-income category comprises the bulk of recruits, followed by low income categories, and a few politicians’ children (how useful is it to ask your children to join to help you political career and their future political career? Just saying.) making up the remainder from the high-income category.


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    • Roger Ingalls says:


      Thank you for the analysis. Sure would like to see a better job of dividing the income quintiles.

      Post it here if you find it.

      The only thing I could agree with here (that is a at least a little surprising) is tat the the very poorest households are under-represented in the military.

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  93. Tex Shelters says:

    I would venture that enlistment by families in the top 1% of all families, those making over $250,000, is tiny. But this report fails to list that, for it might upset the ideological interpretation of their “facts.”

    Tex Shelters

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    • Jerry A says:

      One other point totally skews the graph that seems to have been missed by the commenters. These are NEW enlistment figures. The Heritage Foundation completely excludes re-enlistments, so people who are already in military service and re-up for more time are not counted. What is the real total composition of the US military? You won’t find the answer here. Heritage typically starts with their conclusions and then “finds” exactly the slice of data to support it. They are a far right organization which slants all of their work, so this graph is not a shock, just another disappointment.

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  94. Timothy says:

    What are the Economics of Military Intervention by the US?

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  95. gary liptak says:

    It seems your skepticism is well earned by this Heritage report, as the researchers themselves acknowledge that …

    “Individual or family income data on enlistees do not exist. The Defense Department does not maintain records on the household income of recruits or officers.”

    So, this graph tells us nothing about trends in the household income of recruits and further makes no distinction between officers and non-commissioned personell.

    I find Heritage Foundation conclusions frequently fail the sniff test.

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    • BobbyJ says:


      I think you’re grasping at straws here because your worldview has been challenged. The reason that DoD doesn’t maintain personal income records for enlistees is because it’s completely irrelevant for screening purposes. Zip codes are the next best alternative.

      As for it “(making) no distinction between officers and non-commissioned personnel”, you’re off again. The graph shown doesn’t even include officers. It’s entirely enlisted members. I think you’re probably not that fluent on the terminology.

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  96. Brett Pelham says:

    So many people today serve in the military because they are patriotic, not because they have few other options. There must be a lot of truth to that.

    However, I’d be more convinced by data showing that the children of millionaires and senators actually find themselves on the front lines. I don’t see any data showing that people from REALLY wealthy neighborhoods are overrepresented in the military, especially in actual combat roles. I’d love to see the data, but I can’t imagine this is very likely.

    Along these lines, it would be nice to see statistics separated for officers versus foot soldiers. To put this a little differently, I can’t imagine many really wealthy people are clamoring to do real military service where there is serious risk of death, and I think the strict hierarchy of the military still means that the poor still remain at the bottom. I’d love to learn otherwise.

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  97. PG says:

    I would say the poor kids in rich neighborhoods are more desperate to improve their condition and go to the army as a result. The poor kids in poor neighborhoods don’t have their poverty rubbed in their face all day long so are less desperate to improve themselves. Further in the Northeast social programs mean that rich neighborhoods don’t have poor people in them whereas in Texas Millionaire mansions might be a few streets away from slum apartments.

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  98. T.Lamb says:

    I was also shocked to see that some of the myths I believed about military recruitment were way off base. Perhaps these “urban legends” are what keeps many of lower income status away from the military, including many other things, of course.

    There appears to be a clear connection with political power and service in the military. I assume that is the connection you wanted readers to see, for that is definitely what I took away. Obama, it may be argued, could not have won without the military association he received through choosing Biden as his running mate. The connection to power would also explain the elite’s attraction to military service in spite of the many opportunities they may have in the private sector.

    I am curious to see who will be Hillary’s running mate on the ticket. If the connection between political power and the military is true, her running mate will no doubt have affiliations with the military.

    Another thought, perhaps with a conspiratorial bend, is that the elite’s connection to the military has been growing steadily or should I say rapidly since WWII. Under FDR the business world and the federal government essentially and for all practical and economic purposes, merged. The idea that children of these business elite would then join the military is not to hard to understand. Infiltration from within and from without.

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