Myth of the Underprivileged Soldier

Tim Kane and James Jay Carafano have a USA Today piece “Debunking the myth of the underprivileged soldier.” They argue that, contrary to the rantings of New York Times columnist Bob Herbert and New York congressman Charlie Rangel, the typical American volunteer soldier is not a sad sack forced to endure the risks of combat because of a dearth of other choices.

Some excerpted facts:

  • According to a comprehensive study of all enlistees for the years 1998-99 and 2003 that The Heritage Foundation just released, the typical recruit in the all-volunteer force is wealthier, more educated and more rural than the average 18- to 24-year-old citizen is. Indeed, for every two recruits coming from the poorest neighborhoods, there are three recruits coming from the richest neighborhoods.
  • 98% joined with high-school diplomas or better. By comparison, 75% of the general population meets that standard. Among all three-digit ZIP code areas in the USA in 2003 (one can study larger areas by isolating just the first three digits of ZIP codes), not one had a higher graduation rate among civilians than among its recruits.
  • In fact, since the 9/11 attacks, more volunteers have emerged from the middle and upper classes and fewer from the lowest-income groups. In 1999, both the highest fifth of the nation in income and the lowest fifth were slightly underrepresented among military volunteers. Since 2001, enlistments have increased in the top two-fifths of income levels but have decreased among the lowest fifth.
  • Allegations that recruiters are disproportionately targeting blacks also don’t hold water. First, whites make up 77.4% of the nation’s population and 75.8% of its military volunteers, according to our analysis of Department of Defense data. Second, we explored the 100 three-digit ZIP code areas with the highest concentration of blacks, which range from 24.1% black up to 68.6%. These areas, which account for 14.6% of the adult population, produced 16.6% of recruits in 1999 and only 14.1% in 2003.

These data notwithstanding, this myth will continue as the conventional wisdom. Mostly, I suspect, this is because elite journalists and other opinion shapers simply can not fathom why anyone would willingly volunteer for military service if they had other options.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Carter LeBlanc says:

    Lost of information about army admission standards here:

  2. anjin-san says:

    Recruits from the richest neighborhoods? I would like to hear more about that. When I talk to parents from neighborhoods such as in my case, Blackhawk, Alamo or Moraga, they are talking about how their kids are on their way to Stanford or Princeton, not about them enlisting for the infantry.

  3. The poor dumb solider line is really stupid. Everyone I know in the military is well off financially. They joined because, in their family, it is a proud tradition. I don’t know to many people in the general population that can retire after 20 years with a six figure skill set.

  4. djneylon says:

    “recruits from the richest neighborhoods” — believe it or not, there are people of wealth who believe in serving their country in uniform. Further just because one lives in a “wealthy” zip code, it doesn’t mean your wealthy — a few years back, I lived in a suburban Detroit area where new houses started at $300,000 — the house I and most of the neighbors I had lived in would have priced around $100,000 if the buyer was generous….

  5. anjin-san says:

    I have no doubt there are people who have some money serving in uniform (just not Bush’s or Rumsfeld’s kids).

    It is the percentages quoted in the article that give me pause. I guess wealth is also a relative thing. An earlier poster mentioned 300k houses, around here that won’t even buy you a shack.

  6. zen_more says:

    Oh the Heritage Foundation. Now THERE’s a really objective source. They probably couldn’t find the recruits from poor neighborhoods, because they have no idea where the poor neighborhoods are.

  7. jane says:

    This isn’t a particularly new story and the fact that you haven’t sen articles stating that most soldiers come from the lower middle and middle middle or working classes or that most of those in combat positions are among the most priviledged of these groups(those looking for skills take support positions) simply shows you don’t read the MSM.

    That a large proportion don’t look at the real numbers is typically, but it applies to so many things. I fault the MSM for not focusing too much on detail and background, but then again the publications that do have low circulation.

    And yes many journalists buy into both leftwing and rightwing cliches, but that shows that like you they don’t really look and analyze. It’s fairly amazing that given the potential crisis developing in the military (a story barely covered) that any “informed” person would not have picked up some accurate detail on the composition of the military.

    But this is how the human mnd works. If you read the papers the facts have been before you before, but you haven’t seen them.

  8. James Joyner says:

    jane: Read the Related articles highlighted.

  9. jane says:

    As for location it is interesting that the cliche people like you pursue is that urban, liberal regions don’t carry their burden.

    It’s just like Republicans talking about self sufficiency when their states typically take in more than they pay in taxes while dem states or opposites or Republicans talking about morality when the conservative south has 3 times the muder rate of the liberal northeast.

  10. Herb says:

    Looks like the average military is not the dumb cluck that MSM portreys them as. Their intelligence also helps them to “See Through” the anti war cut and run, left wing extremist liberal croud that thinks of them as stupid for protecting the country for those candy a**es that are to selfish and self centered to serve.

  11. anjin-san says:

    Herb you seem to think service is an important thing. How do you feel about the service record of the GOP leadership? (plus a few fellow travelers).

    Dick Cheney: Did not serve
    Tom Delay: Did not serve
    Bill Frist: Did not serve
    Mitch McConnell: Did not serve
    Rick Santorum: Did not serve
    Trent Lott: Did not serve
    John Ashcroft: Did not serve (seven deferments)
    Jeb Bush: Did not serve
    Karl Rove: Did not serve
    Paul Wolfowitz: Did not serve
    Richard Perle: Did not serve
    Eliot Abrams: Did not serve
    Rudy Giuliani: Did not serve
    George Pataki: Did not serve
    Sean Hannity: Did not serve
    Rush Limbaugh: Did not serve
    Micheal Savage: Did not serve
    Pat Buchanan: Did not serve
    Bill Kristol: Did not serve
    Clarence Thomas: Did not serve

    I would be glad to provide a list of Democrats who served with distinction, its pretty long.

  12. Devil's Advocate says:

    The Heritage Foundation is a right-wing think-tank. The “studies” that it produces are always intended to further the right-wing agenda.

    In any event, why does it matter? Are you so desperate that you are reduced to reading the tea leaves to support a war that the majority of the American public now oppose?

  13. LJD says:

    Zen_more and Devil’s Advocacate: you may want to be more careful with your generalizations. The STORY in the USA Today is from associates of the Heritage foundation, in fact two miltary veterans. But the study was conducted by the DOD.

    Anjin, you are a weenie. Just keep twisting the facts to fit into your warped view of the world. I count (roughly) 72 of 121 veterans in the House to be Republicans, and 18 of 35 Senators. What you should be more concerned with is the small percentage of the total number, from EITHER party.

    Just curious, what is the military experience of these posters? None? Well, you know what they say about people in glass houses.

  14. anjin-san says:

    Sorry LJD the fact is, the people who led us into this war did not serve. And most of them were of service age at a time when we were at war.

    Say LJD when are you voulenteering for Iraq combat? Or are you just a cheerleader?

    Talk about weenies…

  15. LJD says:

    Oh,, I was just adressing the comment:

    “I would be glad to provide a list of Democrats who served with distinction, its pretty long”

    You were pedaling bullshit and got caught. Now you’re backpedaling…

    I raised my right hand, and “volunteered” myself to be sent (and was) anywhere the country needed me, in a combat unit.

    You, have not, STFU.

  16. anjin-san says:

    You know LJD whining is very unbecoming in a grown man…

    Democrats who served:
    Tom Daschle: 1st Lt. Air Force
    Bob Kerry Lt. JG, Navy. Medal of Honor
    Daniel Inouyt, Army, Medal of Honor
    John Kerry, Lt. Navy, Highly decorated, slimed by Rove.
    Charles Rangel Staff Sgt. Army, Bronze Star
    Max Cleland Captain Army, Silver & Bronze star
    Ted Kennedy, Army
    Tom Harkin, Lt. Navy & Navy Reserve
    Fritz Hollings, Army, Bronze Star

    The list is pretty frigging long and I have to get back to work. LDJ go buy some hankies…

  17. LJD says:

    Oh, I thought you were talking about the long list of Democrats who “voted FOR it BEFORE the voted against it…”