A Sleeper Amnesty: Time to Wake Up from the DREAM Act

September 20, 2010 07:39

We found that recruits tend to come from middle-class areas, with disproportionately fewer from low-income areas. Overall, the income distribution of military enlistees is more similar to than different from the income distribution of the general population.

Heritage Foundation

A Sleeper Amnesty: Time to Wake Up from the DREAM Act

Published on September 13, 2007 by Kris Kobach, D.Phil., J.D.

A few Members of Congress, motivated by American combat in the Middle East, have called for the reinstatement of a compulsory military draft. The case for coercing young citizens to join the military is supposedly based on social justice?that all should serve?and seems to be buttressed by reports of shortfalls in voluntary enlistment. In a New York Times op-ed on December 31, 2002, Representative Charles Rangel (D? NY) claimed, ?A disproportionate number of the poor and members of minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the military, while most privileged Americans are underrepresented or absent.?[1] This claim is frequently repeated by critics of the war in Iraq.[2] Aside from the logical fallacy that a draft is less offensive to justice than a voluntary policy, Rangel?s assertions about the demographic makeup of the enlisted military are not grounded in fact.

Although all branches of the armed services have been able to meet recruiting goals in recent years, the Army?s difficulty in meeting its goal of 80,000 new soldiers in 2005 has been widely reported, and some view it as a symbol of the need to reinstate the draft. However, this shortfall should be placed in the proper context. The Army is projected to fall just 7,000 (about 9 percent) short of its 2005 recruitment goal, which is less than 1 percent of the overall military of over 1 million personnel. Furthermore, there is the unexpected rise in re-enlistment rates. In other words, the total force strength is about what it should be.

Since the draft was discontinued in 1973, all branches of the U.S. military have relied entirely on volunteers to fill their ranks. There are constant challenges in maintaining a balanced supply of recruits for force strength and composition, but three decades of experience confirms that the voluntary policy works well, despite widespread skepticism in the early 1970s. The same cannot be said of a conscripted force, as evidenced by the backlash among troops and the public during the Vietnam conflict. Despite the Pentagon?s strong preference for an all-volunteer force, some politicians and many voters favor a draft.

A June 2005 Associate Press/Ipsos poll found that 27 percent of respondents supported ?the reinstatement of the military draft in the United States.? Reinstatement of the draft was far more popular immediately following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when 76 percent of Americans supported a renewed draft if ?it becomes clear that more soldiers are needed in the war against terrorism.?[3]

Although Representative Rangel?s bill to reinstate the draft failed by a decisive vote of 402?2 in the House of Representatives in 2004, the issue will likely be considered again, especially if there are more terrorist attacks on the U.S.

Some motivations for the draft are entirely patriotic in the sense that they aim to protect America from aggressors. Others see the draft as an instrument of equality, as well as an instrument of pacifism.

Representative Rangel?s theory is that if all citizens faced equal prospects of dying in a conflict, support for that conflict would have to pass a higher standard. This theory assumes that the privileged classes would be less willing to commit the nation to war if that conflict involved personal, familial, or class bloodshed. It also assumes that the existing volunteers are either ignorant or lack other options?that is, they are involuntary participants. One way to test this thesis is to explore the demographic patterns of enlisted recruits before and after the initiation of the global war on terrorism on September 11, 2001.

This paper reports the results of summary research into the demographic composition of two groups of recruits: those who enlisted between October 1998 and September 1999 and those who enlisted between January 2003 and September 2003. These groups are referred to as the 1999 and 2003 recruit cohorts, respectively. Nationwide Census data for citizens ages 18?24 were used as a baseline for comparison. Comparisons of these three different groups highlight the differences not only between the general population and military volunteers, but also between recruits who volunteered for the military before 9/11 and those who volunteered after 9/11.

Our analysis of the demographic composition of enlisted recruits vis-à-vis the general population considers the following characteristics:

  • Household income,
  • Level of education,
  • Race/ethnicity, and
  • Region/rural origin.

This paper also reviews other evidence that is at odds with the image, painted by some supporters of the draft, that the military exploits poor, ignorant, young Americans by using slick advertising that promises technical careers in the military to dupe them into trading their feeble opportunities in the private sector for a meager role as cannon fodder.

The caricature of conscription?a harsh reality of European militaries in the 18th and 19th centuries?lives on in the popular imagination, but it does not accurately represent the all-volunteer U.S. military. Indeed, the U.S. military?s qualitative superiority is what makes it the most efficient and lethal combat force in history. In economic terms, high-skill human capital among troops makes the military more productive overall. There may be legitimate equity concerns that outweigh national security, but they will undoubtedly come at a cost or trade-off in productivity.

However, our research shows that the volunteer force is already equitable. That is, it is highly likely that reinstating the draft would erode military effectiveness, increase American fatalities, destroy personal freedom, and even produce a less socioeconomically ?privileged? military in the process.

In summary, we found that, on average, 1999 recruits were more highly educated than the equivalent general population, more rural and less urban in origin, and of similar income status. We did not find evidence of minority racial exploitation (by race or by race-weighted ZIP code areas). We did find evidence of a ?Southern military tradition? in that some states, notably in the South and West, provide a much higher proportion of enlisted troops by population.

The household income of recruits generally matches the income distribution of the American population. There are slightly higher proportions of recruits from the middle class and slightly lower proportions from low-income brackets. However, the proportion of high-income recruits rose to a disproportionately high level after the war on terrorism began, as did the proportion of highly educated enlistees. All of the demographic evidence that we analyzed contradicts the pro-draft case.

Household Income of Recruits

We found that recruits tend to come from middle-class areas, with disproportionately fewer from low-income areas. Overall, the income distribution of military enlistees is more similar to than different from the income distribution of the general population.

Income was compared on a household basis, not an individual basis, meaning that recruits? income was defined by their household of origin. This approach was used because youth are rarely primary income earners, and many earn no income at all until after high school graduation. However, the household income of their area of origin does serve as a basis for assessing whether the military recruits come from disproportionately poor backgrounds.

Much of the analysis in this paper (including this section) uses five-digit Census ZIP code tabulation areas (ZCTAs) as the unit of analysis. The Census Bureau uses ZCTAs to approximate U.S. Postal Service ZIP codes. In most cases, ZCTAs correspond to postal ZIP codes. For example, Representative Rangel resides in the postal ZIP code 10037. The corresponding five-digit ZCTA 10037, shown in Figure 1, has a median household income of $26,561. In 1999, four recruits originated from the area, in 2003, the total was six recruits.

According to the 2000 Census, the national median income per household in 1999 was $41,994 in 1999 dollars. By assigning each recruit the median 1999 household income for his hometown ZIP code, we calculated that the mean 1999 income for 1999 recruits before entering the military was $41,141 (in 1999 dollars). The mean 1999 income for 2003 recruits was $42,822 (in 1999 dollars). In other words, on average, recruits in 2003 were from wealthier neighborhoods than were recruits in 1999.

Table 2 is a summary of ZCTA data ranked in order of population quintiles. In 1999 and 2003, the recruits generally mirror the percent distribution among the population, but the pattern shows clearly that there were fewer recruits from the poorest quintile of neighborhoods[4] (18.0 percent) and fewer from the richest quintile (18.6 percent) in 1999. In 2003, however, only 14.6 percent of military recruits came from the poorest quintile, whereas the wealthiest quintile provided 22.0 percent. Enlistments from wealthier areas surged, resulting in a 3.4 percentage point upturn. The middle-class quintiles (the third and fourth wealthiest areas) consistently provided disproportionately high numbers of soldiers in both year groups. (See Chart 1.)

Some ZCTAs had higher median incomes than the national median, and some had lower. Chart 2 shows a percent distribution of 1999 recruits by ZCTA income, revealing that the bulk of recruits came from middle-class areas. For instance, the largest percentage cohort of 1999 recruits (17.8 percent) came from neighborhoods with average household incomes of $35,000 to $40,000. Very few recruits?less than 5 percent?came from neighborhoods with average incomes below $20,000 per household.

The plain fact is that the income distribution of recruits is nearly identical to the income distribution of the general population ages 18?24. Because we lack individualized household income data, our approach does not indicate whether or not the recruits came from the poorer households in their neighborhoods. Nevertheless, Chart 3 shows that the difference between the 1999 recruit distribution of ZCTA income and the population distribution is below a single percentage point for 19 of the 20 income brackets. Yet even these slight differences show a subtle pattern: Proportionally, both poorer and richer areas provide slightly fewer recruits, and middle-income areas provide slightly more.

This evidence directly contradicts Representative Rangel?s claim that underprivileged Americans are the source of military manpower and that the privileged are underrepresented. In fact, Chart 4 shows that every ZCTA income bracket below $40,000 provided the same number or fewer recruits after 9/11, while all brackets above $40,000 provided the same number or more.


We find that, on average, recruits tend to be much more highly educated than the general public and that this education disparity increased after the war on terrorism began. Comparable detailed education data from the Census classify the education level of individuals into one of seven categories (from less than high school up to graduate/professional degree). We generated a binary variable that assigns a 1 for individuals with a high school diploma or higher and a 0 for less than a high school diploma.

If one single statistic could settle this issue, it is this: 98 percent of all enlisted recruits who enter the military have an education level of high school graduate or higher, compared to the national average of 75 percent.[5] In an education context, rather than attracting underprivileged young Americans, the military seems to be attracting above-average Americans. What remains to explore is whether this pattern of military enlistment is (1) consistent across ZIP codes, (2) consistent across all branches of service, and/or (3) consistent proportionally across all levels of education.

The claim could still be made that highly educated recruits are being pulled from underprivileged areas, marked by below-average high school graduation rates. Further analysis shows that any such claim would also be incorrect. We used the binary measure to make a ZIP code?level comparison. By comparing the records of 183,288 individual recruits from the 1999 cohort, using ZIP code of origin, against other Census populations by ZIP code, our analysis shows that roughly half (48.5 percent) of enlistees came from three-digit ZCTAs with above-average national graduation rates. The other half of enlistees came from areas with below-average high school graduation rates.

Regardless of ZIP code area, we also find that enlistees are almost universally better educated than the general population. In all but one of the 885 three-digit ZCTAs, the graduation rate for 1999 recruits was higher than the graduation rate for non-recruits ages 18?24. In 2003, recruits had a higher graduation rate in every ZCTA. Figure 2, by using a gray scale to show the intensity of the educational gap, clearly shows that recruits are often better educated than the general population.

Given the nature of the military rank structure, most enlisted recruits do not have a college education or degree. Members of the armed forces with higher education are more often commissioned officers (i.e., lieutenant and above). Compared to the general population, a lower percentage of enlisted recruits have an educational level of 4 (some college/no degree) through 7 (graduate or professional degree), and a lower percentage of recruits are in the two lowest educational levels. Chart 6 shows the distributions for each branch of the military and the general population. The similarity among branches stands out, with the minor distinction that the Army has a slightly higher percentage (2.7 percent) of enlisted recruits with a bachelor?s degree than the other branches.

After September 11, 2001, the educational quality of recruits rose slightly. Comparing 1999 enlisted recruits to 2003 recruits showed an increase in collegiate experience. In 2003, a higher proportion of recruits had college experience and diplomas, and a lower percentage had only a high school diploma? a shift of about 3 percentage points. Furthermore, this figure is not subject to statistical significance tests because it measures the entire recruit population, not just a sample of it. Therefore, we can say definitively that enlistee quality actually increased between 1999 and 2003. (See Chart 7.)

Racial Representation Among Recruits

We found that whites are one of the most proportionally represented groups?making up 77.4 percent of the population and 75.8 percent of all recruits?whereas other racial categories are often represented in noticeably higher and lower proportions than the general population.

This kind of racial analysis is complicated by the fact that race is a self-identified attribute that is not well defined genetically, and many citizens object to racial classification, which complicates government efforts to categorize racial and ethnic identity consistently. Specifically, race data for the population in 2000 are not compatible with the 1999 recruit cohort but are compatible with the 2003 cohort. The 1999 recruit data allow for only one race category per person, whereas 2003 recruit and Census data follow a system that both allows each individual to self-identify any combination of six racial categories and includes an independent Hispanic indicator.

The following analysis of race is based on a comparison of the 2003 recruit data and Census population data for ages 18 and above (not just 18?24). Table 3 provides a summary of racial data, revealing that enlisted recruits are similar to the population with a few sharp differences. Table 3 also includes a breakout comparison of the 2003 Army recruits, since that branch bears a larger share of danger on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, the data show that, proportionally, blacks make up 43 percent more of the Army recruits than does the general population, but this is not in place of whites, who make up 1 percent more (not less). Other racial categories?notably American Indians/Alaskan Natives (53 percent) and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders (249 percent)?are even more overrepresented.

A military draft along the lines proposed by Representative Rangel would press thousands more Asian?Americans into service, as well as thousands of Americans who decline to be racially categorized. In contrast, a draft could deny blacks, whites, and others the freedom to enlist in the Army once their racial quotas were filled.

We next considered the ?underprivileged source? hypothesis. We know from earlier analysis that recruiting is not concentrated in poor neighborhoods (ZCTAs), but perhaps it is disproportionately concentrated in black neighborhoods.

The 100 three-digit ZCTAs with the highest concentration of blacks (in any combination of other races) range from 24.05 percent up to 68.63 percent self-identified as black. These areas have 14.63 percent of the adult population but are the origin of only 16.58 percent of 1999 recruits and 14.09 percent of 2003 recruits. Moreover, 2003 recruits from these ?black? areas included an almost equal number of white and black recruits (45.7 percent and 46 percent of the total, respectively). The group of ZCTAs with the highest concentration of whites had almost 46 times as many white recruits as black recruits. Among the ZCTAs that had the highest number of recruits, the ratio was almost 4:1. If the military were to draw disproportionately from minority groups by design, one would expect fewer white recruits from minority-concentrated areas and more minority recruits from the white-concentrated areas.

The demographic data on race reveal that military enlistees are not, in fact, more heavily recruited from black neighborhoods. The data also reveal that minorities serve in different proportions, but not because fewer whites are serving. In other words, there is no ?disproportionate share of minorities? serving in the military, as claimed by editorials around the nation in 2003.[6] Some minorities participate more heavily than other minorities.

Race is often used as a proxy for class, but it is rarely, if ever, an appropriate substitute. Even if the military had a higher share of African?Americans, it does not follow that those recruits are poorer, from poorer areas, from more urbanized areas, less educated, or from less educated areas. Indeed, none of these other claims can be substantiated.

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