Troops Pay Well Above Civilian Counterparts

Soldiers earn compensation in the 80th percentile of their age and education peers, a new study finds.

It is one of the most politically sensitive questions on Capitol Hill: Are the troops getting paid the right amount?

A new Defense Department study suggests that the answer is yes, when basic pay, cash allowances, free health care, pensions and tax breaks are taken into consideration. When those elements are combined, military officers and enlisted personnel are compensated as well or better than 80 percent of their counterparts in the private sector of similar ages and educations, the study said.

That runs contrary to popular perceptions, shaped in the late 1970s, when military pay fell behind private-sector wages, and reinforced in the early 1990s by reports that several thousand military families relied on food stamps to make ends meet.

This finding isn’t really surprising. Young soldiers with only a high school education tend to earn far more than their civilian cohorts and young officers with only a bachelors degree quickly start earning good money.

Of course, their civilian counterparts aren’t being ordered to spend long periods away from the families in places where people are trying to kill them, either. That fact isn’t factored into the study.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Military Affairs, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. markm says:

    Special breed of people..whatever they get paid it isn’t enough.

  2. Bithead says:

    Are we to discount the training given by the military, to such people? Certainly, advanced education.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Are we to discount the training given by the military, to such people? Certainly, advanced education.

    Training isn’t education. Certainly, I wouldn’t consider the several months I spent at Ft. Sill for my officer basic course and MLRS cadre course to be “education” in any meaningful sense. It’s more akin to trade school.

    The senior NCO academies and advanced officer courses combine training and education and some even award civilian education credentials. For example, the War Colleges all award master’s level degrees. But their peer group would then be people with master’s degrees.

  4. Bithead says:

    It’s more akin to trade school

    An apt description, since trade school grads tend to get paid more than those who don’t attened such schools.

    Still, this discussion reminds one rather vividly of the comment from John Kerry, about how people who are in Iraq are those who didn’t study hard, didn’t do their homework, and just aren’t doing well because they aren’t smart, at all. If they were, they wouldn’t be “stuck in Iraq”. A lack of Education, ya know. I know you didn’t mean that, but it seems a short hop from one to the other.

    As I said at the time…to say nothing on insensitive, it seems to me an out of touch comment, to begin with.

    Last stats I can access from here, (I’m at work) date back a few years, and are from the Air Force.

    99.9 percent of Air Force enlistees have high school diplomas; while 73.3 % have some college credit, 16.2 % have an Associates degree, 4.7 % have a Bachelors degree.

    There are other requirements than education of course. For example, you must be fit, phisically.
    No drug or alcohol problems allowed.
    You can’t have any visible tattoos.
    If you have ever been addicted to a substance, or trafficked in one, you are not eligible for enlistment. No criminal record. You can’t be a single parent, no financial issues, and so on.

    On the basis of these alone, you’re already cutting by 80% the number of people qualified to enlist, and at the end of the day, you’retalking the cream of the crop for prospective employers, even before we start talking about the educational aspect of it all, and are talking about a higher pay rate to attract such folks.

  5. legion says:

    Well, it depends on what chunk of society you’re comparing servicemembers with. If you’re looking at 18-year-olds just out of high school, or even 20-somethings that haven’t completed college, yeah – the military pays a fair sight better than those people would likely make in the outside world.

    As you go up in rank/education level however, that will naturally diverge – there are legal limits on how much the military can be paid, and no such limits on civilian wages. Compare the salary of, say, a general or E-9 responsible for the leadership of a large unit & compare that to the typical salary for a corporate division or regional manager.

    One thing is true, tho – as health care gets harder to get & more expensive, the civilian equivalent of that military benefit will make active service significantly more attractive…

  6. James Joyner says:

    Compare the salary of, say, a general or E-9 responsible for the leadership of a large unit & compare that to the typical salary for a corporate division or regional manager.

    If you’re comparing based on responsibility, I’d agree that there can be some disconnect. They’re just doing it on the basis of education, though, and the E-9 probably just has “some college” and the general likely has the equivalent of a master’s degree in political science. Those in highly technical fields, though, may have more marketable degrees and the proficiency pay they get tends not to be enough compensation.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    It seems to me that this may be worth taking into consideration when thinking about the use of contractors for work that soldiers have traditionally done. I’m thinking about contractors of the unarmed sort—food service, truck drivers, and so on.