Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide

Why do people enlist in the military? The answer might surprise you

Household income of military enlistees


Each year, more than 150,000 people enlist in the U.S. military. Why do so many people volunteer for such a tough job?

Some argue that the military recruits poor, uneducated minorities who don’t have many other options. This refrain is echoed with the best of intentions; no one wants the poorest citizens to fight America’s wars so that the privileged don’t have to.

But many people in the military take exception to this idea. Not surprisingly, they don’t appreciate being stereotyped as poor, uneducated or desperate. These perceptions color the public’s views of what veterans are capable of doing when they return home.

So who really really enlists in the military and why do they do it?

We put our research team to work on these questions and they uncovered several myths. We put our findings in this video (you can get more details below, too).

Myth #1: Military recruits are poor

A 2008 Heritage Foundation study found that soldiers were actually more likely to come from middle to upper-middle-class backgrounds. In fact, the lowest income neighborhoods are significantly underrepresented, while the highest income neighborhoods were the most overrepresented.

Household income of military enlistees

We were skeptical of a study coming from a conservative think tank, but their data holds up and the study remains the most often cited of its kind. While similar studies used zip codes to determine average neighborhood income as a proxy for individual family income, the Heritage Foundation study used census data, which is more fine-grained.

So why do the numbers skew this way? One theory is that people at the lowest end of the income spectrum are less likely to meet the military’s qualifications. About 14% of Americans lack one basic requirement — a high school diploma or equivalent — and they tend to fall at the low end of the income scale.

Another likely reason is that middle and upper-middle-class recruits are drawn to the military by the new GI Bill, which provides a free college education to veterans who serve for four years or more. Given the soaring costs of college education, this is a big benefit for families who earn too much to qualify for other forms of financial aid but can’t afford to spend $40,000 a year on tuition.

Side note: The Heritage foundation also likes to trot out this graph, which plots income levels in more detail:

Heritage Foundation analysis of enlistee income

This graph is potentially misleading with respect to enlistment of people from households with an income over $100,000 (25% of the U.S. population). It’s possible, if the graph were broken down above the $100,000 level, that we would find the wealthiest Americans being underrepresented in the military.

Myth #2: Military recruits are uneducated

Those who would have you believe that military recruits are uneducated typically point to the low numbers of recruits with college degrees. According to the Department of Defense and the Census Bureau, only 12.6% percent of the military had college degrees in 2014, compared to 29.3 percent of the general population over 25. But many people enlist in the military before going to college so that they can get their degrees afterward for free through the GI Bill. If we compare veterans over the age of 25 to their civilian peers in the same age group, we find that they are just as likely to have college degrees.

College degree rates of military and civilians

It’s also worth pointing out that today’s military recruits are much more likely to have a high school diploma (99%) than the general population (86%).

High school diploma rates - military and civilian

Myth #3: The military recruits a disproportionate number of minorities

The U.S. military is actually slightly whiter than the population as a whole. Here are the numbers:

Racial composition of military recruits relative to population

The red outlines represent the percentages of the general population and the white outlines represent percentages of the military population. While whites and blacks are slightly overrepresented, hispanics are significantly underrepresented in the military.

It may still be true that the military actively recruits in low-income, minority neighborhoods and it is certainly true that the military has increased efforts to recruit Hispanics, but this could be attributed to the simple fact that they are an underrepresented minority in the military’s current ranks.

So much for the idea that the military recruits poor, uneducated minorities.

So if people aren’t enlisting in the military because they lack other options, why do they enlist? We’ve got the data on that too — click here to find out.

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enlistment, recruitment, stereotypes, veterans