Socioeconomic Status in Perspective

Chapter 7

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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.

[1] See, for example, Cooper, R.V.L., Military Manpower and the All-Volunteer Force (Santa Monica, CA:  RAND Corporation, 1977).

[2] See, for example, Janowitz, M., “The All Volunteer Military as a Socio-Political Problem,” Social Problems (February 1975), pp. 432–449.

[3] Democratic Leadership Council, Citizenship and National Service: A Blueprint for Civic Enterprise (Washington, DC:  Author, May 1988), p. 25.

[4] 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.

[5] 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).

[6] See Population Representation in the Military Services, Fiscal Years 1991–1997.

[7] 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.

[8] Aspin, L., All Volunteer:  A Fair System, A Quality Force (Washington, DC: Chairman, House Committee on Armed Services, April 26, 1991).

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