Far too often, the people who choose to serve in our military are characterized as being “poor” Americans who choose to serve because they have no other choice. The conventional wisdom among media elites is that that new military recruits disproportionately come from poor areas of the country, that minority race groups are overrepresented, or that new recruits are uneducated. This is just not true. Unfortunately, Judy Woodruff perpetuated this falsehood last night when she asked John McCain:
Senator … 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?
This is wrong. It is time to get the facts straight. Analysis of data of all non-prior service enlistees (by definition, new enlistees) in the active duty branches of the military finds that, in both 2006 and 2007, less than 1.5% of these new troops lacked a high school diploma or equivalent credential. This is not an isolated finding. Each year the Under Secretary of Defense, Personnel and Readiness, publishes a report on population representation in the military. They find that almost all new accessions – in fact, close to 99% of new accessions – have a high school education.
Maintaining balanced race representation in the military has been an area of concern since the draft was ended and the all-volunteer force was instituted in 1973. Again, it is often repeated that minority groups are currently disproportionately represented in the military, which is another legend – another “fact” – not supported by actual data. Blacks are currently proportionally represented in the military (when compared to population representation of this group to 18 to 24 year old males, the relevant comparison group) and Hispanics are largely underrepresented. So much for the disproportionately high representation of these groups.
That leaves us with income. Are out troops really as economically disadvantaged as we would be led to believe by the popular wisdom? Well, to put it simply: No, they aren’t. Members of the all-volunteer military are sig¬significantly more likely to come from high-income neighborhoods than from low-income neighborhoods. Only 11 percent of enlisted recruits in 2007 came from the poorest one-fifth (quintile) of neighborhoods, while 25 per¬cent came from the wealthiest quintile.
Our troops are not uneducated. Recruits are not coming disproportionately from minority groups. Our military is not a poor man’s force. The repetition of false information about the demographic makeup of our troops belittles these brave men and women and the sacrifices they have made to serve our country.