Who Serves in the Military Today?

Three of the four candidates in the upcoming election have a son who has either served in Iraq or soon will: Jimmy McCain, Beau Biden, and Track Palin. (And the children of the fourth candidate, Barack Obama, are a bit too young for military duty.)

Is this sheer happenstance?

I am guessing that when Obama was preparing to pick his running mate, it was important to counter John McCain‘s military bona fides — and Joe Biden fit the bill at least in some small part because his son Beau is a captain in the Delaware Army National Guard, soon to be deployed to Iraq. When McCain chose his vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin‘s chances certainly weren’t hurt by having a son who’s an Army Pfc. about to be sent to Iraq.

If you randomly take any four American families, it would certainly be anomalous if three of them had a son in Iraq. (The U.S. military currently has about two million people in uniform.) But isn’t it even more anomalous that three of four families like these — i.e., families of considerable means — have sons in Iraq? Isn’t the modern military full of men and women from low-income backgrounds, with a far higher minority representation than in the general population, who join up only because they have no other viable career possibilities?

That is certainly a piece of conventional wisdom that I have heard voiced; which is why a new report titled “Who Serves in the U.S. Military? The Demographics of Enlisted Troops and Officers” is so surprising. It was compiled by Shanea J. Watkins and James Sherk at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis. I suspect that the Heritage Foundation’s imprimatur will raise skepticism among some readers, and I have several qualms myself with what is said and not said in the report, but the facts are very compelling.

The report measures the demographics of military personnel against the general U.S. population in four areas: household income, education level, racial and ethnic background, and regional origin. Here is the most surprising picture in the report:


So 50 percent of the enlisted recruits (i.e., not including the officers’ corps) come from families in the top 40 percent of the income distribution, while only 10 percent come from the bottom 20 percent. It is worth noting that the income information here is not perfect: the data do not include actual family income for each recruit, but rather use the median household income of the recruit’s home census tract. But still, one look at that graph tells you that the conventional image of a military full of poor kids doesn’t reflect the reality.

“These trends are even more pronounced in the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (R.O.T.C.) program,” reads the report, “in which 40 percent of enrollees come from the wealthiest neighborhoods — a number that has increased substantially over the past four years” (i.e., since the September 11 attacks).

Here are some of the report’s other claims:

1. “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 to 24 years old [in the general population].”

2. “Contrary to conventional wisdom, minorities are not overrepresented in the military service.”

3. “The facts do not support the belief that many American soldiers volunteer because society offers them few opportunities. The average enlisted person or officer could have had lucrative career opportunities in the private sector.”

Point No. 1, while technically true, is also misleading. As the report states elsewhere, “The military requires at least 90 percent of enlisted recruits to have high-school diplomas” (not counting GED’s) and, furthermore, the Army itself requires a high-school diploma or equivalent, with a 2.5 G.P.A.

So high-school dropouts are, for the most part, not getting into the military. In fact, if you consider “low education” a proxy for “low income,” that would seem to explain most of the high-income effect we see in the graph above. This doesn’t make the graph any less true; it just makes the report’s language needlessly boastful.

Point No. 2 is particularly interesting, especially as you dig further into the report’s data. Whites and blacks make up almost exactly the same percent of the enlisted personnel as they do in the general population.

The recruit-to-population ratio for whites is 1.06, and for blacks it is 1.08. Hispanics, meanwhile, are significantly underrepresented among enlisted personnel, with a recruit-to-population ratio of just 0.65. (It should also be said that this entire report groups together personnel from all four service branches, which means that the aggregate numbers do not necessarily represent any one of the branches separately.)

It’s also interesting to note that blacks are overrepresented in R.O.T.C. commissions, with a 1.21 officer-to-population ratio, compared to 1.02 for whites. United States Military Academy graduates, however, are a different story entirely. Just over 80 percent of West Point graduates are white (a 1.12 officer-to-population ratio), while only 5.5 percent are black (a 0.5 ratio). Also, nearly 18 percent of West Point cadets come from a family with a household income of more than $100,000. Granted, West Point is an elite institution and is bound to attract elites.

There’s a further important point that can’t be found in this report but can be found in another one, which compiles race-specific U.S. military fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of March 1, 2008, there were 2,964 white fatalities in Iraq, representing 74.8 percent of the total; in the general population, meanwhile, whites in that age cohort make up about 62 percent of the population, so whites are overrepresented among Iraqi fatalities. Blacks and Hispanics, meanwhile, are both underrepresented; the same is true in Afghanistan.

Point No. 3 is almost an ideological argument rather than a factual one. But still, this much is clear: when discussing the U.S. military in the aggregate, the common notion that the military is a stop of last resort, increasingly staffed by low-income desperadoes with slim future prospects, cannot be right.

If the report has one significant ideological point to make, it’s that military participation has a huge patriotic/service component that is commonly overlooked, especially in portions of the country where military representation is far below average. (In the Northeast, for instance, the recruit-to-population ratio is just 0.73, compared to 1.19 in the South.)

We obviously haven’t heard the last word on patriotism or service in the current campaign. And many of the words to come will certainly be loaded. If nothing else, here’s hoping that people — no matter which side they’re arguing — will take a look at some of the numbers in this report before leaping to conclusions.

[Note: I recently discussed this topic on The Takeaway.]


Oh, almost forgot, MANY people have argued that it is only the poor that serve and that the middle class do not serve that much, it was even argued on CNN and these are people who should do SOME research. Basically the working, middle and upper middle class share the largest burden in the military and the bottom and tops ends of the economic spectrum share very little of it and well under the numbers they should serve at.


I have to address A TON of the arguments I see on here.

First-The Heritage Foundation is a Right Wing Org., however they got the info from the military itself and anyone (with a lot of free time) can check it. The reason they do not have exact figures on incomes is due to the fact that the military does not track incomes, but they do track zip codes, race, gender, religion, etc...

Second-Elite Schools should send people into the service, the dis-connect between the civilian elites and the military elites is huge and only getting bigger. The Military at least sends many of it's people to the elites schools-Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, etc..for Post Grad Studies, no cross polination is done by the civilian side.

Third-Patriotism is a factor but not a leading factor for all recruits, almost all of the people I have worked with and still work with in the service come in for a combination of reasons-patriotism, college, tradition, adventure, etc..what percentage each of those things plays in a persons choice to join is of course different for each person. The theory that most join for college is silly, all one has to do is look at the amount of unused money in the GI Bill every year and you can figure out pretty quickly that is not a primary motivator for why people join, it might be one reason but not the primary.

Fourth-Comparing some of the things done by US Soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Nazis is almost silly and devoid of any reason. While things have happened that are horrible almost ALL of them were told up the chain of command by other soldiers and were being investigated by the Army CID or Navy NCIS before the News "broke" them open. Also, the incidents are few and far between and make headlines because they are few and far between.

Fifth-The ASVAB is what really keeps a lot of the poor out, if you go to a crappy school system and cannot get a good education or perhaps drop out, then the chances of you getting into the service without a minimum score on the ASVAB and a GED Waiver are minimal. The ASVAB is also used to allow many without HS Degress to get in, ie; if you have a High ASVAB score you will find it easier to get a waiver to get into the service than you would without a high score.

Sixth-(after this I will stop the numbers listing I swear! ;-) ) The racial makeup in the Military is just about what it is across the US but the Army tends to have a higher minority rate than the rest of the service's and one theory is that due to the tradition of many blacks only getting a fair shake in the military back in the days when the US was very segragated it was a place that many blacks could go to and rise according to the merits of there work. This leads to many family members having a positive impact from the military and passing that feeling onto the next generation. Studies for recruitment have shown time and time again a major factor in a person joining the military is association with a family member or friend who recommended it to them.

Anyway, the study is not bunk, it goes with what I have seen and the military has looked at but the study is a bit "boasting" in it's own self-importance but otherwise, if you can get past the bluster, it is a very good study.



This seems basically right to me, but I would like to see more granularity in the analysis.

I've done some research on who typically enlists in the Air Force, and the typical enlistee is a child of middle and upper-middle class parents who did not graduate college.


Just as a side note - most of the Waffen-SS (everybody who went in 1943-1945, when it reached it's largest size) was a conscript. Some Waffen-SS solders were conscripted before those dates as well, and some voluntarily joined a more "elite" unit as alternative to being drafted into Wehrmacht.

To follow up, if NM really believes that his country's military is as bad as Waffen-SS he'll immediately cease paying taxes which pay for genocide they presumably are performing. Doing anything else would be materially supporting genocide, and be quite ... evil.

Darren M

From my personal experience, I think the lack of middle-class enlistment is largely based on upbringing. We're "precious little snowflakes" who are considered too good to shop at Wal-Mart, let alone serve in the military. I'm 23 years old and I've tried enlisting. My parents were scared to death of the idea. Now I know everybody's parents would be scared of the idea of losing a child in war, but I think my folks would have reacted the same way in peacetime and were against such a working-class career path, even though I had just flunked out of college.

Eventually I was rejected for service for medical reasons. It's very personal so I won't specify the condition here, but suffice to say it is a non-obvious one that cost them $10,000 of their own money just to test for and definitely feeds into the "precious little snowflake" mentality.

Matthew G.

It is amazing how hard some people try to attack any study that refutes the "sending the poor and minorities" to war meme. They shake heads and mumble that it has to be fake, it can't be real, smart white folks avoid the military and send the 'po black folks'.

I proudly serve with many people, from all walks of life, from all states, backgrounds, religious beliefs, political persuasions - currently on deployment in theater (OIF). The nation's finest do serve, even with a few bad apples, the military is made of sterner stuff.

We disagree on many things, but we work together and get the job done. Without us, your world would be much different, more terrifying and violent than you could imagine.

We get used to being called nazi's, stupid, warmongers - as well as poor, uneducated children. It depends on who is attacking the military and what "point" or "truth" they are attempting to convey.

What matters most in the upcoming election is voting for the man with the best leadership, experience and judgment. If you feel that the guy you are voting for will not crumble under pressure and do what is right, no matter the consequences, then vote. If that man does not meet those criteria: then you are foolish to hand the keys to the largest economy and military machine to a lightweight.

P.S. I come from a middle class family, I have my degree in IT, I'm an enlisted NCO, and when I get out I'm going to make more money because of my military experience.



I'd be curious to know how those who enlist in the services rank in their graduating class. The lack of post high school education options maye be predicated on academic performance, not socioeconomic limitations.

Wes P

NM asks:

How much more patriotic are the brave US soldiers serving in the occupation of Iraq, compared to the brave Waffen SS serving in the occupation of France 65 years ago?

How well educated were the Waffen SS?


I would think that the primary reason for #2 is #1. In fact, separating the race data from the education and income data seems a bit dishonest if the report attempts to use racial statistics from the general population as the control group for #2. The more accurate control groups would be either racial statistics from those who have at least graduated high school or income statistics by race.

When you change the racial comparison's control group from Heritage's recruit-to-population to recruit-to-high school graduate (which is far more meaningful considering the Army's limitation on non-high school graduates), the data shows a bit of a different picture. Blacks make up less than 10.6% of high school graduates and Hispanics less than 8.8%-- a number far below their representation among the total population.

The change in the former is relatively small, yet not insignificant. Using the 2006 data, the recruit-to-high school graduate ratio among black students rises from 1.04 to 1.17. Among Hispanics, it would likely skyrocket from the current 0.65 if similarly adjusted. The adjustment is crucial because the current ratio is completely meaningless seeing as it lumps in a sizable group of people that are not typically permitted to join the military (high school dropouts).


Avi Rappoport

I wonder what the education and income demographics are for the mercenary parts of the outside contractors. And in particular, whether the casualty percentages are in the same general range.

I don't know what the answer is, or even what I think the answer should be. But it's an interestng problem to consider.

LtCol George W. Murray USMC (ret)

Had Mr Dubner spent sufficient time in the Armed Forces, giving his best effort, his bias and ignorance might not be so pronounces.

Something that appears quite lost on many citizens is a great lesson imparted to Marines, Rangers, and other Special Operations Forces; which is the difference between a problem and an inconvenience.

Many thanks to the patriotic men, women, and families, who have served our Nation in-and-out of uniform, often at the expense of their personal lives. S/F

Military Attorney

RW at 25

Military attorneys often find themselves near the front lines. Many are wounded or worse.

They deserve special praise: an attorney could easily make an excellent salary and live a life of comfort outside the military. Those with law degrees who serve are heroes, just like everyone else who serves.

fmr navy officer

This is so amusing. My ex-wife was privately outspoken in expressing her opinion that all members of the military were losers who could find nothing better to do with their lives. Her family were polite when talking about my intended career, as if I had told them that I was a landfill manager.

The Heritage Foundation data accurately tracks our respective backgrounds - I come from the rural South; she came from the Gold Coast of Connecticut.


I'd like to see the raw numbers on this report. It does seem as if that fifth quintile is covering an awfully lot of territory. I would be a little surprised if high income families are sending a lot of kids into the military: I live in a wealthy suburb of Houston, Texas -- Tom DeLay's old district, in fact, a hotbed of Republicans and very vocal patriotism-- and know very few people with a child who has enlisted or even become an officer. Long separations from family, personal danger, rampant sexual harassment, and no 401K make this a not very attractive career option unless you are badly off and really need a job. I'm the wife of a retired career military officer, and most of my husband's peers in the military were people who were patriotic, sure -- but they really needed a way to pay for college. Not impoverished, but their folks were not making $265,000, either.

Incidentally, the posters who complain that Obama was not in the military don't add that neither was Palin. Which a pity in Palin's case, since she might well have benefited from the broadening effects of leaving Alaska, a thing she has seldom done, as far as I can see. Not sure where in the

Constitution it says you have to have been in the military to be a President, however.


H Dizzle

I'm marrying a Marine soon and noticed on an Army base that the families were mostly low income. I have been arguing the point for months now and finally there is data to dispute it.

My first impression was that the quintiles are a strange way to divide income brackets. I would like to see a branch-by-branch division of the same study, as I still think my original hypothesis stands. I'm also interested in literacy in the armed forces and how literacy training could actually save DoD expenses (from the mistakes made).

I'm very interested in more military statistics and economic theory on freakonomics!


When IQ is screened you are gonna keep out the poorest. Is this news?

Ibrahim Abdul

I blame Bowling for Columbine for the misrepresentation.

Thanks for the post.


Note to Ezzie. A quick Google search shows that only one red state, Texas, contributes signficantly more to the US treasury via taxes than it gets back. The blue states dominate the ranks of the net givers of money to the Feds, mainly because they are much more vibrant economies. This correlates with a lot of things, among them the fact that (except for Texas) the red states offer many fewer job opportunities than do the much wealther blue states. When you live in rural Tenn or WVa, the military looks like a better path to a better career than working in a mine or a 7/11. And this is indeed true, as many personal stories attest. jhh (Tennessee)



Considering that two purple hearts and a silver star were insufficient to stop the Republicans from questioning Kerry's patriotism and toughness, I'm pretty sure nothing would work.

Also, fighting in a war has virtually nothing to do with foreign policy. A really high-ranking position is certainly another story. But for the vast majority of people, I don't see how the experience is a teaching tool for national diplomacy, beyond presumably being able to locate Vietnam on a map.

David Chowes, New York City

If the Heritage Foundation's study is methodologically sound and not conducted with an ax to grind which might distort the results -- well, I am truly surprised