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:

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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. Tigger says:

    Tom K

    A sixth quintile?

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  2. 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.

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  4. 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.

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  5. 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.

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  6. 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.

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  7. 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.

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  8. 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).

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