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.]


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.



@ 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."


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.

san martin

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.

Christopher Raissi

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.

Johnny E

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.




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


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?



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?


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


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...


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).


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.



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?

Arie Jacobi

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.


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!



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.

Jacques René Giguère

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...


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.


What Anu Koshal, #53, said.