Charlie Rangel Is Wrong About Recruits

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D.-N.Y.), soon to chair the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, has announced his intention to try to reinstate the draft. He has offered three justifications for returning to conscription after 33 years of an all-volunteer force: social justice, peace and better troops.

Rangel claims that mostly poor people with few opportunities enlist, often driven to military service because of structural unemployment. “If a young fellow has an option of having a decent career, or joining the Army to fight in Iraq, you can bet your life that he would not be in Iraq,” he said on Fox News Sunday, November 26. This serious charge—that the most vulnerable citizens are being hauled away to fight in corporate America’s wars of choice while the elite are earning fortunes—is untrue.

Higher Quality

According to military data analyzed by the Heritage Foundation, U.S. troops come from wealthier neighborhoods than their civilian peers (see page 3). In fact, the only underrepresented neighborhoods are those with the lowest incomes.

A November 2005 Heritage report comparing military enlistees in 1999 to those in 2003 showed no degradation in troop quality. Recently, we revisited the issue by examining the full recruiting classes for all branches of the U.S. military for every year from 2003 to 2005.

The demographic characteristics of volunteers have continued to show signs of higher quality.

For example, our review of Pentagon enlistee data shows that the only group lowering its participation in the military is the poor. The percentage of recruits from the poorest American neighborhoods (with one-fifth of the U.S. population) declined from 18% in 1999 to 13.7% in 2005. The distribution of household income of recruits is noticeably higher than that of the entire youth population.

Like their peers in 1999 and 2003, recruits in 2004 and 2005 came primarily from middle-class areas. Poor areas are proportionally underrepresented in the wartime years (2003-2005).

The Department of Defense does not track family income data for recruits, and there are no individual income data for enlistees. Military service is the first full-time job for most of them. We approximated each recruit’s household income by using the median household income of his or her hometown ZIP code.

By assigning each recruit the median 1999 household income for his hometown ZIP code as determined from Census 2000, the mean income for 2004 recruits was $43,122 (in 1999 dollars). For 2005 recruits, it was $43,238 (in 1999 dollars). These are increases over the mean incomes for the 1999 cohort ($41,141) and 2003 cohort ($42,822). The national median published in Census 2000 was $41,994. On average, the 2004 and 2005 recruit populations come from even wealthier areas than their peers who enlisted in 1999 and 2003.

When comparing these wartime recruits (2003-2005) to the resident population ages 18 to 24 (as recorded in Census 2000), areas with median household income levels between $35,000 and $79,999 were overrepresented, along with income categories between $85,000 and $94,999. This suggests the U.S. isn’t sending the poor to die for the interests of the rich.

From 2003 to 2005, the representation of the highest-income quintile rose 0.68 percentage points, from 22.17% to 22.85%. As conflict in Iraq continues, youth from wealthy areas continue to volunteer for duty despite increased risk. Additionally, over the course of these three recruit years, representation from the poorest quintile has decreased dramatically. The representation among recruits of the lowest-income quintile fell nearly a full percentage point, from 14.61% in 2003 to 13.66% in 2005.

Educational achievement is the characteristic most commonly cited as evidence of lower military standards driven by the Iraq War. In general, though, the higher quality of recruits compared to equivalent civilian population has held steady during the war years.

Given the nature of the military rank structure, most enlisted recruits do not have a college education or degree. Members of the armed forces with higher education are usually commissioned officers (lieutenant and above). In 2004, 92.1% of active-duty officer accessions held bachelor’s degrees or higher. From 2000 to 2005, between 10% and 17% of active-duty officer accessions held advanced degrees, and between 35% and 45% of the active-duty officer corps held advanced degrees. This indicates that officers continued their education during their military service.

Additionally, the Department of Defense reports that the mean reading level of 2004 recruits is a full grade level higher than that of the comparable youth population. Fewer than 2% of wartime recruits have no high-school credentials. The national high-school graduation rate is 79.8%.

As support for the war in Iraq has declined, criticism of the war has translated into criticism of our nation’s troops, at least by way of criticizing the quality of wartime recruits. But the estimate for mean household income of recruits increased every year from 2003 through 2005. The poorest areas continue to be underrepresented, while middle-class areas are overrepresented. Although the richest income brackets are underrepresented, the difference between the recruit and population proportions for these brackets is less than 0.25%. Overall, the distribution for recruit household incomes is very similar to that of the youth population.

In contrast to the patronizing slanders of antiwar critics, recruit quality is increasing as the war in Iraq continues. Although recent recruiting goals have been difficult to meet, re-enlistment is strong and recruit quality remains high. No evidence supports arguments for reinstating the draft or altering recruiting policies to achieve more equitable representation.


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