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Monday, July 19, 2004

The Myth of the 'Poverty Draft'

Over at Crooked Timber, there's a remarkably fact-free discussion going on about the morality of going to war with a volunteer military. Lumberjack Chris writes,
I just got back from seeing Farenheit 9/11. There's a little voice saying I should pick away, argue about this point or that point, qualify, criticize. Others can do that. Moore makes one point quite brilliantly: that those who suffer and die come overwhelmingly from families and communities that are, shall we say, somewhat poorer than the politicians who chose to go to war, or the executives of the corporations who hope (hoped?) to profit from Iraqi reconstruction.
A typical comment in the 90+ post thread is "Moore's point is that, basically put, the military is about the only good option for the poor wanting to get a better life."

But if poor means anything like the official poverty line (the bottom 10-15% of society), this just isn't true. The military mostly excludes the poor: the military recruits about 1/3 fewer people than in did at the end of the Cold War. Today, you can't get in without a high school diploma or GED. And even in these highly educated times, about 15% of young American are high-school drop-outs.

Similarly, 87% of new officers have 4-year college degrees, which puts them among the top 30% most educated young Americans. 17% have advanced degrees (doctors, lawyers, chaplains), putting them in the top 6% of young Americans.

It may well be true that the real elite of society are underrepresented in the armed forces. According to military sociologist Charles Moskos,
In World Wars I and II, the British nobility had a higher killed-in-action rate than the working class," he said. "Our enlisted ranks resemble the British: they're lower- to middle-class, working-class, intelligent people, who are joining for both the adventure and economic opportunity. But the officer corps today does not represent American nobility. These are not people who are going to be future congressmen or senators. The number of veterans in the Senate and the House is dropping every year. It shows you that our upper class no longer serves.
I'd be willing to bet, though, that the upper class isn't really underrepresented, it's just not overrepresented like it used to be. In 1957, the majority of Princeton's graduating class served in the military. Today, students at elite colleges still enroll in ROTC programs (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, MIT), though most have to travel off-campus to attend.

New Enlisted
Army Military Civilian 18-24
HS/GED or more 100 99.1 79.4
GED 13.6 7.2 n/a
Some College 10.6 8.5 46.7
HS Drop-out 0.0 0.8 20.6

New Officers
Army Military Civilian 25-29
Less than College 6.1 13.3 70.7
Some College n/a n/a 28.7
HS n/a n/a 28.4
HS Drop-out n/a n/a 13.6
4-year College 78.9 70.2 23.4
Advanced Degreee 15.0 16.5 5.9
Source: DoD (tables 2.7 & 4.13), Census Bureau


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