• Heritage Action
  • Heritage Libertad
  • More

Debunking the myth of the underprivileged soldier

By and

They all volunteered. The U.S. soldiers pitching in with hurricane relief along the Gulf Coast and those fighting and dying in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere decided, on their own, to serve their nation.

Or was the decision made so freely? Could it be that unscrupulous Pentagon recruiters duped them, taking advantage of their poverty, their lack of education and the bleak futures they share as members of the USA's urban underclass?

That's the view of some critics, such as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who writes that "very few" of the soldiers fighting in Iraq "are coming from the privileged economic classes," and that there would likely be no war if rich kids had to fight. According to Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., social equality demands reinstatement of the draft, which he justifies by asserting that "the most privileged Americans are underrepresented or absent." Herbert concludes that there is "something very, very wrong with this picture."

What's "very, very wrong" with the Rangel-Herbert picture is that it has no factual basis.

According to a comprehensive study of all enlistees for the years 1998-99 and 2003 that The Heritage Foundation just released, the typical recruit in the all-volunteer force is wealthier, more educated and more rural than the average 18- to 24-year-old citizen is. Indeed, for every two recruits coming from the poorest neighborhoods, there are three recruits coming from the richest neighborhoods.

Yes, rural areas and the South produced more soldiers than their percentage of the population would suggest in 2003. Indeed, four rural states - Montana, Alaska, Wyoming and Maine - rank 1-2-3-4 in proportion of their 18-24 populations enlisted in the military. But this isn't news.

Enlistees have always come from rural areas. Yet a new study, reported in The Washington Post earlier this month, suggests that higher enlistment rates in rural counties are new, implying a poorer military. They err by drawing conclusions from a non-random sample of a few counties, a statistically cloaked anecdote. The only accurate way to assess military demographics is to consider all recruits.

If, for example, we consider the education of every recruit, 98% joined with high-school diplomas or better. By comparison, 75% of the general population meets that standard. Among all three-digit ZIP code areas in the USA in 2003 (one can study larger areas by isolating just the first three digits of ZIP codes), not one had a higher graduation rate among civilians than among its recruits.

In fact, since the 9/11 attacks, more volunteers have emerged from the middle and upper classes and fewer from the lowest-income groups. In 1999, both the highest fifth of the nation in income and the lowest fifth were slightly underrepresented among military volunteers. Since 2001, enlistments have increased in the top two-fifths of income levels but have decreased among the lowest fifth.

Allegations that recruiters are disproportionately targeting blacks also don't hold water. First, whites make up 77.4% of the nation's population and 75.8% of its military volunteers, according to our analysis of Department of Defense data.

Second, we explored the 100 three-digit ZIP code areas with the highest concentration of blacks, which range from 24.1% black up to 68.6%. These areas, which account for 14.6% of the adult population, produced 16.6% of recruits in 1999 and only 14.1% in 2003.

Maintaining the strength and size of our all-volunteer military isn't always easy. But Americans step up when their country needs them. To suggest the system is failing or exploiting citizens is wrong. And to make claims about the nature of U.S. troops to discredit their mission ought to be politically out of bounds.

Tim Kane is an Air Force veteran, and James Carafano is an Army veteran. Both are research fellows at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in USA Today

Heritage's daily Morning Bell e-mail keeps you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.


The subscription is free and delivers you the latest conservative policy perspectives on the news each weekday--straight from Heritage experts.


The Morning Bell is your daily wake-up call offering a fresh, conservative analysis of the news.


More than 200,000 Americans rely on Heritage's Morning Bell to stay up to date on the policy battles that affect them.


Rush Limbaugh says "The Heritage Foundation's Morning Bell is just terrific!"


Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) says it's "a great way to start the day for any conservative who wants to get America back on track."


Sign up to start your free subscription today!