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The Military Demographic Conundrum

U.S. Army soldiers with the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division returning fire during a firefight with Taliban forces in Barawala Kalay Valley in Kunar province, Afghanistan, March 2011 By Pfc. Cameron Boyd/

I’ve been planning to write on the demographics of the US military for a while, and now’s as good of a time as any. AOC is proposing the wrong solution to the wrong problem, and it’s because of a pervasive misunderstanding of the demographic foundations of the US military.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has introduced a pair of amendments to a defense appropriations bill that would bar the military from using funding to maintain a recruiting presence in U.S. schools or on digital streaming platforms such as Twitch.

In a statement to The New York Times, the first-term lawmaker explained that the amendments are intended to curb a trend of military recruiters targeting low-income students.

“Whether through recruitment stations in their lunchrooms, or now through e-sports teams, children in low-income communities are persistently targeted for enlistment,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

“In many public high schools where military recruiters have a daily presence, there is not even a counselor,” she continued. “As a result, the military stops feeling like a ‘choice’ and starts feeling like the only option for many young, low-income Americans.”

The armed forces, she told the Times, “can for some provide a rewarding career,” but recruitment should not be targeted to poorer students while “low-income Americans are not being given anywhere near the same information or access to trade schools, college or other post graduate opportunities.”

Unfortunately, AOC gets the problem entirely wrong, and the solution she’s offering will actually make the situation worse. The US military does not recruit primarily from the poor, and indeed the poor are excluded in systematic ways from military service and all the perks that service entails. My intention here is not to pick on AOC in particular, because the misunderstanding is widely shared among progressives. A particularly innumerate version of the argument can be found here, which discovered (shockingly) that 20% of military recruits came from the lowest 40% on the income distribution. This is something that we can, and should, do better.

What Progressives Get Wrong

The United States military does not recruit disproportionately from low income Americans. The middle three income quintiles in the US are over-represented among enlisted personnel, with the top and the bottom slightly under-represented. We don’t have great data from the officer corps, but including that would undoubtedly make the top four quintiles significantly over-represented, and the bottom quintile significantly under-represented. The core argument about disproportionate recruitment in poor communities is simply wrong.

The US military does recruit disproportionately on several other metrics, however. It recruits disproportionately from families that already include members of the military, from rural areas around the country, and from the suburban and exurban South. African-Americans and Latinos serve at somewhat higher rates than their percentage in the population, although this gap is often over-stated, and many of these recruits (especially among African-Americans) also come from exurban communities in the South.

Why not recruit primarily from low-income populations? Changes in military technology have had a significant impact on the lived experience of soldiers at the most basic level, making physical and cognitive aptitude more important to the success of a soldier. Individuals from low-income areas often trail in education, nutrition, and community and family support, making them weaker candidates for military service. Modern military service requires physical and technological skill sets that the US health care and educational systems (not to mention the legal system) have very often prevented low-income individuals from attaining.

Why It Matters

Military service is the closest thing the United States has to Fully Automated Space Luxury Communism. The pay is good; the benefits are excellent; the job security is solid; the post-employment benefits are outstanding; the health care is more or less free; opportunities for advancement abound. Downsides include death, injury, PTSD, being sent to foreign countries to kill people, and (worst of all) a bureaucracy straight out of Kafka. To be clear, it is a bad thing that the most socialized aspect of the US economy is restricted to military personnel and their dependents. The solutions to this problem do not include further exclusion of low-income Americans from military service, which would be the result of AOC’s proposal.

I can say this from observational experience; there is no more rapid way to produce an audible eyeroll from a soldier than to suggest that the uniformed ranks are filled with the poor and under-educated. A lieutenant who has just led a unit in which half of the enlisted personnel have BAs is disinclined to pay much attention to someone who insists that the military is abusing the impoverished and uneducated. It’s fair to say that the Army, in particular, sometimes tries to have it both ways on this point, pretending to simultaneously be a path to prosperity and a highly professionalized force of technological specialists.

Where the Misunderstanding Came From

The idea that military recruits come from an underclass is pervasive among progressives, in ways that are deeply frustrating to those who have a more accurate sense of the problem. The misunderstanding stems from several roots. It was certainly more true (although not precisely accurate) that during the Vietnam era the poor disproportionately served in the military. The deferment system, with a bias towards college, heavily favored the upper middle and upper classes.

During the Iraq War era, progressives were very careful to avoid criticizing soldiers directly. The idea of soldiers being blamed for the war, no matter how rarely that actually happened in the Vietnam era, was viewed as political poison by the anti-war movement. Thus, Iraq was framed as a problem of bad civilian management, rather than a problem of bad soldiers. The idea that soldiers were driven to enlist by economic deprivation nested easily into this framework, even if it wasn’t true. Framing US military personnel as victims of the Bush administration rather than perpetrators of the Iraq War simplified the political problem for antiwar critics. To be sure, there was (and is) considerable disgruntlement within the military about both Iraq and Afghanistan, but the source and nature of this disgruntlement does not stem from the threat of economic deprivation.

Finally, the general disengagement of Americans with the military has tended to produce considerable ignorance about the realities of military life. On the right, this has produced “thank you for your service” style lionization of military service. On the left, this has resulted in genuine befuddlement as to why anyone would volunteer. The first ignores the (very real) economic incentives for military service, while the second reduces all service to those incentives.

There is no question that external economic conditions have an impact on willingness to enlist; the same is true of enrollment in undergraduate or graduate study. Indeed, we even have historical evidence that increased economic opportunity makes it more difficult to recruit military personnel. There’s good reason to think that for African-Americans in particular military service is a means of maintaining middle-class status, rather than attaining it. But people volunteer for lots of different reasons; they want the economic benefits of military service; they think military service will be meaningful and exciting; they are deeply patriotic and believe in an American mission; their friends and family have enlisted; they are bored with other jobs; and they want or need structure in their early 20s.

Misdiagnosing the Problem

The misunderstanding has produced a fundamental misdiagnosis of the problem. The issue is not that the poor are forced to serve in the military; the problem is that the poor are systematically excluded from military service, the most socialized sector of the US economy and one of the most reliable paths into the middle class.

It should not be surprising that the US military has become more selective about those it allows to enlist. From 240 million in 1980, the US population has grown to 332 million, while the size of the uniformed US military has dropped from 2.151 million in 1985 to 1.359 million today. Even those numbers are deceptive, though, because military service is far more open to women today than it was in the 1980s. In short, the applicant pool has grown substantially, while the number of available spots has dropped. When we speak of a “recruitment crisis” what we mean is that the military is struggling to to recruit from within the 30% of American 18-24 years olds who are judged physically, mentally, and legally capable of military service; some 70% are pre-emptively excluded. And this is the problem: the military is not a choice that most low-income Americans can make, whether or not recruiters are available in lunch rooms. Actual recruiters understand that low-income high schools are among the least productive recruiting targets, because low-income students suffer disproportionately from the problems that pre-emptively exclude young people from military service.

Indeed, the programs that AOC is targeting are intended to remedy this disparity. The military does not want to rely wholly on exurban communities in the South to make its recruitment targets. Putting recruiters in low-income urban high schools in blue states isn’t about taking advantage of the poor; it’s about diversifying the force away from its existing demographic base, which is most definitely not urban and not low-income. Sending recruiters into low-income high schools disproportionately populated by people of color is a low odds gamble, and definitely not the bread and butter of the US military.

Why Progressives Should Do Better

Here’s a set of things that are true: low-income high schools should have trade school and college recruiters in their cafeterias. The benefits of Military Full On Luxury Space Communism should, as policy, be shared across the broader public and not depend on service. Recruitment policies in the military should be tweaked in order to better produce the kind of diverse force that would best represent America. People who decide to serve in the US military shouldn’t be sent abroad to kill and die in pointless, stupid wars. Young people interested in public service should have alternatives to joining the military.

AOC’s proposal, which is not the first of its kind, doesn’t solve any of the problems, or any other problem apart from the fact that military recruiters would rather be somewhere more productive, because it doesn’t reflect understanding of the problems as they actually exist. Progressives, from AOC on down, need to do a much better job of analyzing the military recruitment issue and developing solutions to the (serious and genuine) problems that it entails.

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