Socioeconimic Status of Enlisted Accessions
Family Status
Home Owner
Index Scores

Chapter 7


Differing viewpoints on the socioeconomic status of accessions have been the basis for serious debates regarding the viability of the All Volunteer Force.  While the concern that the volunteer military would recruit primarily from the lower economic and social levels has not been borne out, it is important to understand the socioeconomic composition of the military.  This chapter reviews issues surrounding these aspects of the military and provides data on the social background of FY 1998 recruits.

Socioeconomic Status in Perspective

Imbalances in socioeconomic representation in the military often have been a controversial social and political issue.(1)  In debate over the establishment of the volunteer force, opponents argued that it would lead to a military composed of those from poor and minority backgrounds, forced to turn to the military as an employer of last resort.  Some critics anticipated that the consequences would be not only inequitable, but dangerous.  They argued that by recruiting primarily from an underclass, the volunteer force would create a serious cleavage between the military and the rest of society.(2)

The belief that the enlisted military drew recruits primarily from lower socioeconomic groups was a major element in proposals for either a return to conscription or some form of national service program that would draw all classes into military or civilian service.  The philosophical basis for these proposals was the conviction that all social classes should contribute their share to the national defense.  A 1988 report by the Democratic Leadership Council stated, "We cannot ask the poor and under-privileged alone to defend us while our more fortunate sons and daughters take a free ride, forging ahead with their education and careers." (3)

Many of the assertions about the class composition of the military have been based on impressions and anecdotes rather than on empirical data.  Analysis of Vietnam era veterans indicated that individuals of high socioeconomic status comprised about half the proportion of draftees compared to their representation in the overall population.(4)  Three systematic analyses of the socioeconomic composition of accessions during the volunteer period suggest that little has changed with the All Volunteer Force.  All found that members of the military tended to come from backgrounds that were somewhat lower in socioeconomic status than the U.S. average, but that the differences between the military and the comparison groups were relatively modest.(5)  These results have been confirmed in recent editions of this report, which portray a socioeconomic composition of enlisted accessions similar to the population as a whole, but with the top quartile of the population underrepresented.(6)  While the socioeconomic status of recruits is slightly lower than the general population, today's recruits have higher levels of education, measured aptitudes, and reading skills than their civilian counterparts.

Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm revived concerns that Blacks would bear a disproportionate share of fighting and dying in future wars.  The Chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services stated, "The…Committee spent some considerable time on this [issue] and came to a rather surprising conclusion about it.  It's not true."(7)  A related report concluded that the volunteer system provided quality enlistees; that minorities would not bear a much heavier burden of combat; and that a draft would neither be as fair nor produce a force as high in quality as the current system. (8)  The report indicated that a draft would lead to a less educated, less motivated, and less competent force, even though it might be more representative of the upper and lower social strata.

Defining Socioeconomic Status

Although the term "socioeconomic status" is used frequently, there is no general consensus regarding how to define and measure this construct.  Often, measures cited in the literature are those of convenience or availability (e.g., race, zip code).  In general, socioeconomic status is considered as an indicator of economic and social position.(9)

Research suggests that occupation is the best single indicator of socioeconomic position.(10)   However, including additional information, such as education and income, can increase explained variance in the measure of social class.  In addition, different items may assess unique dimensions of socioeconomic status, which together may represent the construct more completely.(11)   The variables traditionally used to assess social standing are education, occupation, and income; additional measures include employment status, possessions, and presence of reading materials in the home.(12)

Measuring Socioeconomic Status

Socioeconomic representation has been included in the annual Population Representation in the Military Services since the FY 1986 report.  However, there were no reliable socioeconomic data to report at that time.  Available data included the zip code of a recruit's current address and associated statistics from census data.  While this type of data is useful for demographic trend analysis and advertising and marketing research, it is not reliable for comparing socioeconomic representation in the military to that of the general population.  For example, applicants and recruits may not come from the background indicated by the zip code for their current address (i.e., these individuals may move away from home to go to college or to work). (13)

The Survey of Recruit Socioeconomic Backgrounds, first administered in March 1989, is currently administered on a continuing basis at recruit training centers.  Participants answer questions about their parents' education, employment status, occupation, and home ownership.  While income is a widely used measure of socioeconomic status, research provides evidence that recruit-aged youth are not accurate at estimating their parents' income.(14)  Therefore, home ownership is included as a proxy for income.

Several researchers have devised a summary statistic for socioeconomic status.(15)  The socioeconomic index (SEI), derived from predicted prestige scores based on levels of income and education within occupations, is one means of defining socioeconomic status.  Stevens and Cho(16) developed such scores for each 3-digit occupation code in the 1980 Census, revising earlier work by Duncan, and Featherman et al.(17)   More recently, this index has been revised by Hauser and Warren(18) to incorporate prestige ratings from the General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center(19), as well as occupational income and education data from the 1990 Census.  This report uses a version of the SEI that incorporates income and educational data about both males and females; it is termed the Total Socioeconomic Index (TSEI).  TSEI scores for recruits can be calculated using parental occupational information reported in the Survey of Recruit Socioeconomic Backgrounds. 

In FY 1998, the Survey of Recruit Socioeconomic Backgrounds was given to both active duty and Reserve Component recruits without prior military experience.  Approximately 12,200 active duty and 3,200 Reserve Component enlisted accessions provided information on the marital status, education, employment, and occupation of their parents.(20)  The survey requested information on the parents with whom the recruit was last living, whether they were biological parents, stepparents, or other legal guardians. Throughout this discussion, these will be referred to as "recruit or DoD parents."

For civilians, similar information is collected by the Bureau of the Census.  These measures include marital status, highest level of education, home ownership, employment status, and occupation.  For comparison, information is provided for parents of civilian youth between the ages of 14 and 21, inclusive, who were living at home.  These data are taken from the Current Population Survey (CPS), an ongoing survey conducted by the Bureau of the Census for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.(21)  They will be referred to as "CPS parents."

Comparisons between DoD and CPS parents should be tempered by the fact that the DoD group does not include officer accessions.  Since Active Component officer accessions represent nearly 8 percent of total Active Component accessions, adding officer socioeconomic measures could produce a moderate change in the overall DoD results.  However, for most of the variables reported in this section, including officer data would produce little change in the reported values, because the civilian and military distributions are quite similar.  Specific areas in which adding officer data might change the comparisons will be noted in the following discussion.

Socioeconomic Status of Enlisted Accessions and Civilians

The remainder of this chapter presents the results of the 1998 recruit survey and civilian comparison data from the CPS.  These data provide several measures of socioeconomic status, including the TSEI scores.

  1. See, for example, Cooper, R.V.L., Military Manpower and the All-Volunteer Force (Santa Monica, CA:  RAND Corporation, 1977).(go back)
  2. See, for example, Janowitz, M., "The All Volunteer Military as a Socio-Political Problem," Social Problems (February 1975), pp. 432–449.
  3. (go back)
  4. Democratic Leadership Council, Citizenship and National Service: A Blueprint for Civic Enterprise (Washington, DC:  Author, May 1988), p. 25.
  5. (go back)
  6. Boulanger, G., "Who Goes to War?" in A. Egendorf, C. Kadushin, R.S. Laufer, G. Rothbart, and L. Sloan (Eds.), Legacies of Vietnam:  Comparative Adjustment of Veterans and Their Peers, Vol. 4.  Long-term Stress Reactions:  Some Causes, Consequences, and Naturally Occurring Support Systems (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1981), pp. 494–515.
  7. (go back)
  8. See (1) Cooper, R.V.L., Military Manpower and the All Volunteer Force (Santa Monica, CA:  RAND Corporation, 1977), pp. 223–250;  (2) Fredland, J.E. and Little, R.D., Socioeconomic Characteristics of the All Volunteer Force:  Evidence from the National Longitudinal Survey, 1979 (Annapolis, MD:  U.S. Naval Academy, 1982);  (3) Fernandez, R.L., Social Representation in the U.S. Military (Washington, DC:  Congressional Budget Office, October 1989).
  9. (go back)
  10. See Population Representation in the Military Services, Fiscal Years 1991–1997.
  11. (go back)
  12. Aspin, L., Chairman, House Committee on Armed Services, The All Volunteer Force:  Assessing Fairness and Facing the Future, before the Association of the U. S. Army, Crystal City, VA, April 26, 1991.
  13. (go back)
  14. Aspin, L., All Volunteer:  A Fair System, A Quality Force (Washington, DC: Chairman, House Committee on Armed Services, April 26, 1991).
  15. (go back)
  16. Stawarski, C.A. and Boesel, D., Representation in the Military:  Socioeconomic Status (Alexandria, VA:  Human Resources Research Organization, 1988).
  17. (go back)
  18. Powers, M.G., "Measures of Socioeconomic Status:  An Introduction," in M.G. Powers (Ed.), Measures of Socioeconomic Status:  Current Issues (Boulder, CO:  Westview, 1981), pp. 1–28.
  19. (go back)
  20. Nam, C.B. and Terrie, E.W., "Measurement of Socioeconomic Status from United States Census Data," in M.G. Powers (Ed.), Measures of Socioeconomic Status:  Current Issues (Boulder, CO:  Westview, 1981), pp. 29–42.
  21. (go back)
  22. Department of Defense, Population Representation in the Military Services:  Fiscal Year 1986 (Washington, DC:  Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense [Force Management and Personnel], 1987).
  23. (go back)
  24. Ibid.
  25. (go back)
  26. Ibid.
  27. (go back)
  28. Stevens, G. and Cho, J.H., "Socioeconomic Indices and the New 1980 Census Occupational Classification Scheme," Social Science Research, 14 (1985), pp. 142–168.
  29. (go back)
  30. Ibid.
  31. (go back)
  32. See Duncan, O.D., "A Socioeconomic Index for All Occupations," in A.J. Reiss, Jr. (Ed.), Occupations and Social Status (New York: Free Press, 1981), pp. 139–161; Featherman, D.L., Jones, F.L., and Hauser, R.M.,
  33. (go back)
  34. Hauser, R.M. and Warren, J.R.  Socioeconomic Indexes for Occupations: A Review, Update, and Critique (Madison, WI: Center for Demography and Ecology, June 1996).
  35. (go back)
  36. Nakao, K. and Treas, J., "Updating Occupational Prestige and Socioeconomic Scores: How the New Measures Measure Up," in P. Marsden (Ed.), Sociological Methodology, 1994 (Washington, DC: American Sociological Association, 1994), pp. 1–72.
  37. (go back)
  38. Navy recruits who said that they were in the TARS program were counted as active duty recruits.
  39. (go back)
  40. To facilitate comparison between the military and civilian data sets, the CPS data were weighted to match the military data in terms of age.  CPS sample weights were ratioadjusted to age distributions, in 5-year intervals, of recruits' parents.  Consequently, the adjusted CPS data contain the same percentage of parents in a specific gender and age group (e.g., male parents age 40–44) as the military data set.  When sample sizes are large, small differences in magnitude can be statistically significant.  For comparisons between DoD and CPS parents, any difference greater than about one percentage point is statistically significant; the comparable figure for comparisons between Services or between active duty and Reserve Components is 3 percent.
  41. (go back)

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