Who serves in the active-duty ranks of the U.S. all-volunteer military? Conventional wisdom holds that military service disproportionately attracts minorities and men and women from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many believe that troops enlist because they have few options, not because they want to serve their country. Others believe that the war in Iraq has forced the military to lower its recruiting standards.
Previous Heritage Foundation studies that examined the backgrounds of enlisted personnel refute this interpretation. This report expands on those studies by using an improved methodology to study the demographic characteristics of newly commissioned officers and personnel who enlisted in 2006 and 2007.
Any discussion of troop quality must take place in context. A soldier's demographic characteristics are of little importance in the military, which values honor, leadership, self-sacrifice, courage, and integrity-qualities that cannot be quantified. Nonetheless, any assessment of the quality of recruits can take place only on the basis of objective criteria. Demographic characteristics are a poor proxy for the quality of those who serve in the armed forces, but they can help to explain which Americans volunteer for military service and why.
Based on an understanding of the limitations of any objective definition of quality, this report compares military volunteers to the civilian population on four demographic characteristics: household income, education level, racial and ethnic background, and regional origin. This report finds that:
- U.S. military service disproportionately attracts enlisted personnel and officers who do not come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Previous Heritage Foundation research demonstrated that the quality of enlisted troops has increased since the start of the Iraq war. This report demonstrates that the same is true of the officer corps.
- Members of the all-volunteer military are 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 percent came from the wealthiest quintile. These trends are even more pronounced in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, in which 40 percent of enrollees come from the wealthiest neighborhoods-a number that has increased substantially over the past four years.
- 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 18-24 years old, and 95 percent of officer accessions have at least a bachelor's degree.
- Contrary to conventional wisdom, minorities are not overrepresented in military service. Enlisted troops are somewhat more likely to be white or black than their non-military peers. Whites are proportionately represented in the officer corps, and blacks are overrepresented, but their rate of overrepresentation has declined each year from 2004 to 2007. New recruits are also disproportionately likely to come from the South, which is in line with the history of Southern military tradition.
The facts do not support the belief that many American soldiers volunteer because society offers them few other opportunities. The average enlisted person or officer could have had lucrative career opportunities in the private sector. Those who argue that American soldiers risk their lives because they have no other opportunities belittle the personal sacrifices of those who serve out of love for their country.
This report proceeds in two parts.
First, it examines the demographic characteristics of the enlisted personnel in 2006 and 2007, using new data from the Defense Manpower Data Center.
Second, it examines the same demographic characteristics for 2007 graduates from the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point and for members of the Army ROTC who were commissioned between 2004 and 2007 or enrolled in the Army ROTC as of March 2007. Officers who were commissioned in 2004 would have enrolled before the start of the war on terrorism, while those enrolled in 2007 were well aware that they were signing up during wartime. This makes it possible to assess whether the war in Iraq has degraded the officer corps' standards.
The Defense Manpower Data Center provided The Heritage Foundation with data on enlisted recruits for all branches of the military in 2006 and 2007. These data included the recruits' racial and ethnic background, their educational attainment when they enlisted, and information connecting recruits to their home census tracts. Using census tracts enables a more precise analysis of the recruits' family income than previous Heritage Foundation reports, which had data available only at the three-digit and five-digit Zip code tabulation area level.
Enlisted recruits in 2006 and 2007 came primarily from middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds. Low-income neighborhoods were underrepresented among enlisted troops, while middle-class and high-income neighborhoods were overrepresented.
Individual or family income data on enlistees do not exist. The Defense Department does not maintain records on the household income of recruits or officers. Examining the earnings of most recruits before they joined the military is not possible because, for most of them, their first full-time job is in the military.
Instead, we approximated the recruits' household incomes by assigning each recruit the median household income of the census tract in which they lived. This approximates their parents' economic status. For example, 10 recruits in 2006 came from census tract 013306 in San Diego. Accordingly, we assigned to each of these 10 recruits a median household income of $57,380 per year (in 2008 dollars), the median income of that tract in the 2000 Census.
Census tracts are far smaller and more homogenous than five-digit Zip code tabulation areas. While the average five-digit Zip code tabulation area contains almost 10,000 residents, census tracts average approximately 4,000 residents. Using census tract data consequently allows for a more precise imputation of household income than was possible in previous reports and, correspondingly, a more accurate analysis of how the recruits differ from the civilian population.
Using the median household incomes in their census tracts, the average household income for all 2006 recruits was $54,834 per year (in 2008 dollars). The average enlisted recruit in 2007 had a household income of $54,768. This is modestly above the national average of $50,428. Chart 1 shows the distribution among enlisted recruits and the population as a whole by household income quintile.
As Chart 1 shows, low-income families are underrepresented in the military, and high-income families are overrepresented. Individuals from the bottom household income quintile make up 20.0 percent of the population of those who are 18-24 years old but only 10.6 percent of the 2006 recruits and 10.7 percent of the 2007 recruits. Individuals in the top two quintiles make up 40.0 percent of the population, but 49.3 percent of the recruits in both years.
Chart 2 shows the household income distribution of enlisted recruits for 2006 and 2007 in more detail. It also shows the difference in income distribution between enlisted forces and the overall civilian population.
Every income category above $40,000 per year is overrepresented in the active-duty enlisted force, while every income category below $40,000 a year is underrepresented. Low-income families are significantly underrepresented in the military. U.S. military enlistees disproportionately come from upper-middle-class families.
Members of America's volunteer Army are not enlisting because they have no other economic opportunities. Most recruits come from relatively affluent families and would likely earn above-average wages if they did not join the military.
Contrary to popular perceptions, America's enlisted troops are not poorly educated. Previous Heritage Foundation studies found that enlisted troops were significantly more likely to have a high school education than their peers. This is still the case. Only 1.4 percent of enlisted recruits in 2007 had not graduated from high school or completed a high school equivalency degree, compared to 20.8 percent of men ages 18 to 24. America's soldiers are less likely than civilians to be high school dropouts.
The military requires at least 90 percent of enlisted recruits to have high school diplomas. Most enlisted recruits do not have a college degree because they enlist before they would attend college. However, many recruits use the educational benefits offered by the military to attend college after they leave the armed forces.
More evidence of the quality of America's enlisted forces comes from the standardized Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT) that the military administers to all recruits. Over two-thirds of enlisted recruits scored above the 50th percentile on the AFQT. The military tightly restricts how many recruits it accepts with scores below the 30th percentile, and only 2.3 percent of recruits in 2007 scored between the 21st and 30th percentiles (Category IVA; see Chart 3). The military does not accept any recruits in the bottom 20 percent.
The all-volunteer force was instituted in 1973 amid concerns over whether the military could maintain race representation proportional to the overall population. In a time of war, people and policymakers would be even more concerned if the burden of war fell disproportionately on certain sections of the population.
As reported in Table 2, the percentage of white active-duty recruits with no prior military service was 65.3 percent in 2006 and 65.5 percent in 2007. Based on calculations from the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS), almost 62 percent of the U.S. male population ages 18 to 24 classified themselves as white in 2006. The troop-to-population ratio in these years was 1.05, indicating that the representation of whites in the military is similar to, although slightly above, their representation in the overall population.
The representation of blacks in the military is also above their population representation, with recruit-to-population ratios of 1.03 in 2006 and 1.08 in 2007. The percentage of Asian and Pacific Islander recruits is smaller than their population representation, with recruit-to-population ratios of 0.94 in 2006 and 0.93 in 2007.
American Indian and Alaskan natives are largely overrepresented in the military compared to their representation in the overall population. In 2006, the IPUMS reported that less than 1 percent of males ages 18 to 24 characterized themselves as American Indian or Alaskan. Yet this group accounted for 2.16 percent of new enlisted recruits in 2006 and 1.96 percent in 2007. This group is the most overrepresented among new recruits, with troop-to-population ratios of 2.96 in 2006 and 2.68 in 2007.
The population percentages and ratios for Hispanics are presented in Table 3. Hispanics are largely underrepresented among new recruits, with troop-to-population ratios of 0.64 in 2006 and 0.65 in 2007. Compared to the previous versions of this paper, the Hispanic indicator variable had more complete responses, with many fewer recruits declining to indicate Hispanic ethnicity. However, the nonresponse rates for the Hispanic ethnicity indicator variable were still large enough that they may confound the results of the Hispanic analysis. If only recruits who responded to the Hispanic ethnicity question are considered, we still find that this group is underrepresented in the military.
Representation by census region and division for recent active-duty military enlistees is found in Map 1. Similar to previous Heritage Foundation reports on the regional representation of troops, we find that the strong Southern military tradition continues with the 2006 and 2007 enlisted recruits. The South accounts for more than 40 percent of new enlistees-a proportional overrepresentation.
The Northeast is underrepresented in the enlisted population, while the Midwest and West are roughly proportionally represented. Map 2 shows the enlisted representation ratios for each state for 2007 enlistees with no prior military service. The figures for 2006 are in Table A1 in the Appendix.