Opinion » Ted Rall

Poor and Uneducated, Like We Thought

Debunking the military debunkers

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SAN DIEGO—"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," claimed the authors of an oft-cited 2005 "comprehensive study" of the U.S. military commissioned by the Heritage Foundation.

"A pillar of conventional wisdom about the U.S. military is that the quality of volunteers has been degraded after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq," said the conservative think tank. "Some insist that minorities and the underprivileged are over-represented in the military. Others accuse the U.S. Army of accepting unqualified enlistees in a futile attempt to meet its recruiting goals in the midst of an unpopular war." These myths, insisted Heritage and its media allies, were propagated by antiwar liberals out to demoralize the country by attacking its troops.

Two years later, right-wingers trot out the Heritage troop survey as evidence that America is sending its best and brightest, rather than its down and out, to win Afghan and Iraqi hearts and minds. The GOP blog Newsbusters used it to rebut Rosie O'Donnell's statement that most recruits enlist in the army to get an education: "Of course, facts don't matter to Rosie O'Donnell." But are these "facts" true?

The claim that U.S. combat troops come from richer families and enjoy higher levels of educational attainment than the average American defies both conventional wisdom and everyday observation. Active-duty soldiers earn less than their civilian counterparts. In a capitalist society, low-paying jobs seldom attract people with higher educational credentials. A disproportionate share of blogs by soldiers serving on the front lines are poorly written. High-ranking officers, even generals, come off as hick bureaucrats on television. Many troops believe they're in Iraq to fight those responsible for 9/11 or to prevent them from invading the United States. And a majority of soldiers are conservative Republicans, voting for Bush over Kerry by a 4-to-1 margin in 2004. (The most educated group of voters are liberal Democrats, 50 percent of whom have bachelor's degrees or higher. Republicans tend to be less educated.)

Curious about anything that challenges my assumptions, I looked into the Heritage Foundation study. As it turns out, military personnel are poorer and less educated than the average American civilian. Moreover, they're also a lot more likely to be African-American. (State-controlled media continues to repeat Heritage's claim that the military reflects American racial demographics.)

There are lies, damned lies and Republican statistics. The Heritage study relies on apples-to-oranges comparisons and factual omissions.

No one tracks how much soldiers earned the year before they enlist. The Department of Defense estimates that its employees take a $20,000-per-year pay-and-benefits hit relative to civilians the same age throughout their careers. There is, however, a nifty study by the nonpartisan National Priorities Project that compares home ZIP codes of new recruits to tax return data for those areas. "Neighborhoods with low- to middle-median household incomes are over-represented," finds the NPP. "Neighborhoods with high-median household incomes are under-represented."

A closer look shows that the socioeconomic distance between America at home and American troops abroad is a gaping chasm. Young men and women from affluent neighborhoods—those with average household incomes of $100,000 or more—are three to four times less likely as those from poor and lower middle class areas (under $50,000) to serve in the military. This ratio is increasing.

Heritage obtained different results by "comparing these wartime recruits (2003–2005) to the resident population ages 18–24" in each ZIP code (as opposed to the overall population, all ages included). Many recruits are college dropouts who list their last address—their college dorm—when they sign up. College ZIP codes are populated by disproportionately high numbers of 18 to 24-year-olds who are full-time students and/or work low-paying and part-time jobs. Though imperfect, NPP gets much closer to comparing apples to apples by looking at the overall income picture of recruits' hometowns or communities surrounding a college, not just college-aid kids who earn a pittance.

Nothing says that poor people can't make good soldiers. But let's not kid ourselves. There's a reason so many of the dead come from high-unemployment, low-wage states like West Virginia. They're desperate. And desperate people are more tempted to accept a job that could cost them their lives.

"Many enlisted personnel are drawn to the benefits offered by the armed forces that allow them to obtain funding for college," the Heritage study's authors allow. On the broader point of education levels among U.S. troops, however, they again resort to pomegranate-to-rutabaga comparisons.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office's "1999 Survey of Active Duty Personnel" (the last year for which such data is available) found that "about 60 percent of enlisted personnel surveyed ... reported having no more than a high-school-level education when they began their military service." (Heritage jacks up the total to 83 percent by including GEDs.) Ninety percent of employed Americans over age 25 have a high school diploma.

As they age, military personnel eventually obtain additional educational credentials during their years in the service. Even so, the March 2003 U.S. Census finds that 32 percent of employed Americans have a bachelor's or advanced degree. Just 7 percent of soldiers do.

You don't need a Ph.D. in Middle East Studies to fire a rifle. But higher education generally leads to greater worldliness—which would come in handy in the post-9/11 era.

"Allegations that recruiters are disproportionately targeting blacks also don't hold water," says the Heritage Foundation. "First, whites make up 77.4 percent of the nation's population and 75.8 percent of its military volunteers, according to our analysis of Department of Defense data."

Which is "true"—but not True.

The key word here is "volunteers," which here means "new recruits." A new CBO study released this July states: "Because black personnel have been a larger share of recruits in the past and because they have relatively high retention rates, however, they account for a larger share of the active enlisted force as a whole: 19 percent, compared with 14 percent of the civilian population of 17- to 49-year-olds. Black service members make up a smaller percentage of the active officer corps: 9 percent."

You're more than 35 percent more likely to be in the military if you're black than if you're white. But you're 35 percent less likely to become an officer. Ignore the propaganda—the military is a reflection of, rather than a cure for, racism.

"Recruiters are knowingly allowing neo-Nazis and white supremacists to join the armed forces, and commanders don't remove them from the military even after we positively identify them as extremists or gang members," Scott Barfield, a Defense Department investigator, told the Southern Poverty Law Center.

There are, of course, intelligent, well-educated children of wealthy parents serving in the military. But they are the exception, not the rule. If Afghanistan and Iraq are, as the Bush administration argues, central fronts in the war on terror, which is a war for hearts and minds, we ought to be sending our best-prepared, most presentable representatives of American society abroad as personal ambassadors. Our decision not to pay the higher salaries and benefits that would lure those men and women out of the civilian workforce belies those claims.

Ted Rall is the author of the new book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.