Foundation's Center for Data Analysis recently published a study on
That study's conclusions appear to perfectly contradict those of a
similar study by the National Priorities Project (NPP).
Both studies analyzed the same Pentagon data and employed the same
kind of zip code analysis of recruits' homes of record. Many
reporters and policymakers have asked how to interpret these two
findings. This paper discusses how and why they differ. In short,
NPP's data is accurate, but its primary conclusion is
On November 1, NPP
announced the release of its online database with a press release
headlined "Military recruiters enlist lower and middle income
youth." NPP's analysis is based on Department of Defense data on
Army, Navy, Air Force, and Army Reserve enlistees in FY 2004.
According to the press release, "Lower and middle-income
communities experience higher military enlistment rates than higher
income areas." It also included a charged quote from the NPP's
executive director: "As the Iraq War continues and the number of
soldiers killed and wounded mounts, this data makes clear that low-
and middle-income kids are paying the highest price."
The NPP analysis
received extensive coverage, including a front-page headline and
large chart in the Washington Post.
The Post accepted NPP's conclusions unchallenged:
military is leaning heavily for recruits on economically depressed,
rural areas where youths' need for jobs may outweigh the risks of
going to war.
All of the
Army's top 20 counties for recruiting had lower-than-national
median incomes, 12 had higher poverty rates, and 16 were
On November 7, the
Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis released its 21-page
"Who Bears the Burden?" report on military recruitment. This report
uses Department of Defense data on all active-duty enlistees in FY
1999 and the January to September period of 2003. The report's key
finding is that "There are slightly higher proportions of recruits
from the middle class and slightly lower proportions from
low-income brackets," and its lead author (also the author of this
paper) suggested that "Congress needs to remain steadfast in
opposing coerced conscription and expose the myths of racial and
class exploitation in military recruiting."
How could two
analyses of similar data differ so widely in their conclusions? A
look at the NPP study's underlying methodology answers this
Almost all of
NPP's findings are based on an analysis of what it calls the "top
20 counties by recruitment rate," which forms the basis the
Post's chart. NPP reasons that because these counties are
rural and rural areas are poorer on average, recruits are therefore
poorer than average, which suggests exploitation. This reasoning is
flawed. Serious researchers and statistically literate journalists
would not use a non-random sample of twenty counties to represent
the state of the military.
suggests that a handful of counties with small populations will
always have the highest recruitment rates. It only takes one
enlistee in a county with only twenty equivalent youths to achieve
the top ranking. Indeed, four of NPP's top twenty counties had just
four enlistees, and the average per county was 14.
In all, NPP's top twenty counties accounted for just 275 recruits,
less than two-tenths of one percent of all the recruits in 2004. By
contrast, the zip code area 28314 in Fayetteville, North Carolina,
was the home of 111 recruits in 2003, more than any other ZIP code
in the nation.
contrast its data with similar data from either (1) the "bottom
twenty" counties or (2) some other time period. If one considers
the bottom 20 counties, the same "poor, rural" concentration will
result. Counties with zero recruits will tend to have small, rural
populations with lower-than-national-median incomes.
This is easy
enough to confirm: there were over eight-hundred 5-digit areas with
zero recruits in both 1999 and 2003, resulting in a tie for the
"bottom" recruitment rate. Unsurprisingly, the average household
income of these zip codes is lower than the national median.
When ranked in
terms of total population, the absolute bottom zip code is 02215,
an urban neighborhood that abuts the "Harvard Bridge" in Boston and
had zero recruits. The average household income for the "bottom 20
zip codes" is $22,724. That is, the 20 largest U.S. neighborhoods
with no enlistees have median incomes that are half the
In contrast, the
zip code with the highest recruitment rate is 78254, just outside
of San Antonio, Texas. That neighborhood has a median household
income of $76,000. This finding flies in the face of NPP's
understand the nature of military enlistment, one must take a
comprehensive approach and employ statistics that include the
entire recruit population. What makes the comprehensive data so
impressive is that for every two recruits who came from the poorest
20 percent of neighborhoods in 2003, three came from the richest
Several aspects of
the NPP approach are commendable, particularly its searchable
database of counties- and high schools-level recruitment. But the
sad fact is that most of the NPP analysis is based on "top 20
county" figures that are not representative. Policymakers should be
especially wary of the conclusions that the rural nature of the
military is any different this year than previous years.
And finally, there
is no logical dissonance that military recruits generally come
heavily from both rural and wealthier neighborhoods. While rural
areas tend to be poorer, not all are. More to the point, urban and
suburban areas still provide four out of every five enlistees.
Arguing that the military is disproportionately rural and therefore
made up of individuals from low-income families is no better logic
than arguing that the military is disproportionately black and
therefore made up of individuals from low-income families. It is
true that blacks make up a disproportionate share of military
recruits, but the blacks that enlist tend to be better educated and
from wealthier neighborhoods than comparable civilians. Only with a
comprehensive analysis of the recruitment data are conclusions of
this sort possible. On this, NPP falls short.
Ph.D., is Bradley Research Fellow in Labor Policy in the
Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.