Demographics of Enlisted Troops and Officers - By Shanea Watkins, Ph.D. and James Sherk
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:
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.
- U.S. military service disproportionately attracts enlisted personnel and officerswho 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.
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.