Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The military, present and future

Two interesting bits on military recruiting -- one examining a myth, one painting a bleak picture of the future.

In the March issue of Reason magazine, Tim Cavanaugh reports on a Heritage Foundation study that appears to explode the myth of a poor-man's military.
The largest group of new recruits in 2003—18 percent—came from neighborhoods with average annual household incomes of $35,000 to $40,000, compared to a median household income of $43,318. In all, the top two income quintiles (comprising households with incomes starting at $41,688) produced 45 percent of all recruits in 2003. A mere 5 percent came from neighborhoods with average incomes below $20,000 per household.

The study itself is available here. But interestingly enough, the National Priorities Project analyzed the same data and came to a different conclusion.
Nearly two-thirds of all recruits (64%) were from counties with median household incomes below the US median. About one-third were from counties with a higher median household income. All of the top 20 counties had a median household income below the national median household income.
* 19 out of the top 20 counties had lower median household incomes than their respective state median household incomes. (As a whole, the county-level incomes averaged 70% of the state median income levels.)
* 15 of the top 20 counties had higher poverty rates than the national average.
* 11 of the top 20 counties had higher child poverty rates than the national average.
* 16 of the top 20 counties had higher child poverty rates than the state average.
* 18 of the top 20 had higher poverty rates than the state average.

Subsequently, both organizations offered dueling arguments about who was right here and here.

So who is right?

The answer appears to be "neither." The undisputed facts are these:

1. Households with income under $20,000 are underrepresented;
2. Housholds with income of $20,000 to $25,000 are proportionally represented;
3. Households with incomes of $25,000 to $55,000 are overrepresented;
4. Households with incomes over $55,000 are underepresented.

One problem is that the same "household income" can mean widely varying standards of living, depending on family size. A single person making $30,000 is doing far better than if that same $30,000 has to provide for a family of four.

There's also the imprecision of the data. An area's median household income doesn't reveal which households that area's recruits are coming from; they may be coming from an unrepresentative sample of the area's population -- disproportionately poor or minority, for example.

That said, the above data suggests a few things:

1. It makes sense that the poorest households are underrepresented, because the very poor are less likely to meet military standards, be it because of poor schools, physical problems or a criminal record.

2. The wealthiest households are underrepresented because the wealthy have far more options, and because they're more likely to go to college than enlist.

3. In between those two extremes, the share of recruits increases as income increases -- but only to a point.

The conclusion seems clear to me. The military is primarily working poor and lower middle-class. This reflects the convergence of educational attainment and economic incentives in those income brackets. Income levels are low enough to make the military an attractive option, but high enough that potential recruits are more likely to meet military standards. Heritage's claim of a "middle-class" military is overreaching; NPP's claim of an army of the poor likewise hyperbolizes.

One other thing the studies agree on is that while rural areas are slightly overrepresented, four out of five recruits come from urban and suburban areas. That may help explain why so few of the next generation of young adults are considered potential recruits:

The military doesn't want most people in the prime recruiting age group of 17 to 24.

Of some 32 million Americans in this group, the Army deems the vast majority too overweight, too uneducated, too flawed in some way, according to its estimates for the current budget year.

The projected pool shrinks to 13.6 million when only high school graduates and those who score in the upper half on a military service aptitude test are considered.

Other reasons for exclusion: obesity, a lack of physical fitness, the use of Ritalin and other stimulants to treat attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, other medical problems, criminal histories, and having too many dependents.

That leaves 4.3 million fully qualified potential recruits and an estimated 2.3 million more who might qualify if given waivers for certain problems. Fifteen percent of recruits received such waivers in the last federal budget year.


That's long-term bad news. From those 6.6 million potential recruits, the military has to get enough soldiers to fill its 1.2-million-soldier ranks. For the Army that means 80,000 recruits a year. That means the Army just needs to get 1.2% of the eligible recruits to sign, and they're sitting pretty. But last year the Army missed its recruiting targets.

If you ever wanted to know how few people join the military, that should tell you. The ongoing war in Iraq isn't helping, but military recruiters are getting the sort of low response rates usually reserved for spam or cold-calling. And as more and more of our population ends up in urban/suburban areas, and obesity rates increase, that pool of potential recruits will continue to shrink.

It may be hard to believe, but in a generation the world's last superpower may find it difficult to field a military as large as North Korea's.


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