Policy Today magazine cover
February 1, 2006

Changing demographics in the U.S. armed forces could signal greater social shifts.

All it takes is some relatively quick channel surfing to see how the Pentagon is looking to fill its ranks. The Army's notable "Army of One" campaign; "The Few, The Proud, the Marines," the National Guard's "You Can" slogan, and others, promise the American public that first, the government takes care of its troops, and second, the average Joe is welcome with open arms.

Demographics show that indeed, Joe Mainstreet is more likely to sign up for military service than the extremely wealthy or extremely poor, and the composition of the military—for the most part—resembles the United States itself.

But this begs a larger question: Who should the military recruit? The answer lies not only in socioeconomic terms. Jonathan Alter, an editor for Newsweek, wrote in an online forum: "It is hardly Nazism to require young Americans who have the bounty of American life handed to them to give something back. In fact, we are one of the only industrialized countries in the world that does not do so. National service would be good for young Americans and very good for the country."

You're in the Army now.

In fact, Department of Defense data seem to suggest that the military's demographic profile has been relatively constant over time. The makeup of George Washington's army wasn't significantly different from today's armed forces.

"While it was true that many of the militia came from the lower social classes, more than a
few were from middle income families," said R.S. Stephenson, a Pennsylvania historian. "A soldier's social status and civilian occupation depended greatly upon where he was recruited…The surviving muster rolls show that about 60% of the soldiers listed were laborers. The remaining 40% were either artisans or skilled workers."

Civil War demographics were similar. On average, 48% of both Union and Confederate soldiers were farmers, 24% were mechanics, 16 %were laborers, and only 3% men of wealth.

Professor Charles Moskos, a military sociologist widely regarded as the preeminent authority on national service, strikes a similar note in more recent terms. "I went to Iraq in 2004, and the makeup was largely working-class youth," he says. "When I was in Vietnam as a reporter, the composition was virtually the same despite the existence of a draft: not the bottom-of-the-barrel, but not the privileged kids by any means. Many privileged youth were able to get out of conscription through various deferments, but there were still more than we have serving in Iraq."

Moskos goes on to note that of 750 males in his graduating Princeton class of 1956, about 450 served. Compare that to Princeton's class of 2005: of about 1,100 graduates—male and female—eight went on to national service. "You need elite youth to serve," notes Moskos.

"It's getting closer but [military demographics] don't exactly reflect the U.S. population or society," says Derek Stewart, director of defense capabilities and management at the Government Accountability Office. In reality, women in the military will probably never truly reflect the U.S. population. Women make up about 47 percent of the population, but in the military, females are barred from about 200 of the 1,500 occupations by the DOD and comprise only 15% of the armed forces overall.

On the subject of minorities, Hispanics comprise about 11% of the general population, a percentage that has grown significantly, even though they already represent about 9% of the military. The African American numbers are 12% and 20% respectively.

Economics—there's a problem.

In Fiscal Year 2004-05, the median incomes for those joining the military, aged 16 to 21, was $44,500, compared to $44,300 for the civilian population of the same age group, so there's not much of a difference. But there's a problem, according to a September 2005 report by the GAO.

The DOD conducted income data on the basis of zip codes. In other words, when a young person joins the military, the DOD doesn't ask the individual what educational level his or her parents achieved or how much money he or she makes.

"That would have been a much better way of capturing the data," says Stewart. "When you use the zip codes, you know as well as I do there's always a good side of town and there's a bad side of town. The diversity within a zip code is so great. You have people making $100,000 a year and you have people making $20,000 a year."

One of the foremost socioeconomic factors that leads people to either shy away from the military or decide to join is education. In today's military, you need at least a high school diploma, and the DOD requires at least 90% of all recruits to meet that standard.

"Now, again that requirement of a high school diploma has implications for minorities," says Stewart. "In 2002, 52% of Hispanics graduated from high school compared to 56% of African Americans, Conversely, 78% of whites graduate from high school. "It definitely has implications for the diversity of the pool from which you're able to recruit," says Stewart.

It has implications for our foreign policy as well, according to Moskos. "A country only accepts casualties if privileged youth are putting their lives on the line," he says. "If you don't have privileged youth serving, it usually means that you're quicker to go to war and quicker to get out. When that demographic is there, on the other hand, you're more reluctant to go to war but more likely to stay in once you've started."

Fewer vets in Washington

The implications of changing military demographics may even eventually transform the policymaking process in the Capitol. "Washington is a pretty strange town," Stewart says. "A number of congressmen and political-types here have had political aspirations and wanted a military career on their resume."

However, there is a trend on Capitol Hill that fewer and fewer members of Congress have military backgrounds, "not so much due to the socioeconomic status but due to the fact that there were a number of WWII veterans in Congress," says Stewart. "We're seeing that people running for Congress do not necessarily have the military background of people who were running and elected 10 or 20 years ago."


There is another disturbing new phenomenon in military recruiting—fewer and fewer youth are physically eligible for the military. That target age between 16 and 21 is dwindling due to medical and educational issues. Above all, American youth are more obese today than ever before, and are continuing on that road. 2004-05 DOD research shows about 14 million American youths are between the ages of 16 and 21. Of that number, less than 1.7 million are eligible to serve after the list is pared down by higher education, the workforce, health issues, "moral character" and the under representation of women as an overall percentage. And "many of those (eligible) wouldn't even be interested in the military," says Stewart.

With more of the nation's youth going on to college, the DOD has been targeting two-year colleges, the junior colleges and "trying to catch those people who drop out of the two year college before they latch onto a job or something else," says Stewart.

"But if that pool of people starts to shrink, it will have all kinds of policy implications."

Non-military national service

All of which brings the conversation back to the idea of national service, whether voluntary or required, such as AmeriCorp or Teach for America. Rep. Charles Rangel, Sen. Evan Bayh and Sen. John McCain are just a few who support the idea of national service.

"There are other unmet needs in this country," argues Moskos. "It's not just combat duty. We need homeland security, prison guards, transportation security—lots of things. But there's almost a paradox; with all these needs, there is almost no feeling of personal sacrifice in this country."

A Pentagon aide once observed that "the central fact of military service is a shared experience by all classes, all races, to meet national goals." The military bonds together the diverse elements of American society. President Truman's order desegregating the armed forces effectively reversed the tide of racial discrimination where civilian institutions had failed. By removing any form of mandatory national service, the burden of national defense has shifted to the lower socioeconomic classes, as statistically representative of Americana as they may be. The end result is a system that further segregates the young, affluent, and well-educated from the vast reaches of our society.

Clearly, that disconnect has policy implications as well, some of which could ultimately prove serious all too many Average Joes come home with serious injuries or a flag draped over their coffins.

About Kennedy Smith

Kennedy Smith is a business and law writer based in Portland, Oregon.