Quality of Military Recruits

A backdrop for John Kerry’s ill-fated “joke” is the received wisdom that the typical recruit for the U.S. armed forces is poor and poorly-educated. An Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times(1) by Tim Kane and Mackenzie Eaglen stands out starkly against that backdrop. No Atheists in a Foxhole? No Idiots, Either cites data from Kane’s study for The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, of demographic data on every enlistee in every branch of the armed forces for 1999 and 2003-2005. Kane found that “wartime recruits since 1999 are in many respects comparable to the youth population on the whole, except that they are on average a bit wealthier, much more likely to have graduated from high school and more rural than their civilian peers.” They also found that “[c]ounting enlisted troops only, 29 of 30 have a high school diploma, compared to about 4 out of 5 civilians. And the typical enlistee reads at a level roughly a full grade higher than other young American adults.”

Intrigued, I located Kane’s study (2) on The American Heritage website. It’s other findings belie the accepted wisdom:

  • The percentage of recruits from the poorest American neighborhoods declined from 18 percent in 1999 to 14.6 percent in 2003, 14.1 percent in 2004, and 13.7 percent in 2005;
  • Because the Department of Defense does not track family income data for recruits, Kane assigned each recruit the median 1999 household income for his hometown ZIP code. Using these figures, the mean income for 1999 recruits was $41,141 for 2003 was $42,822, for 2004 recruits was $43,122, and for 2005 recruits was $43,238. Per the 2000 Census the national median income in was $41,994. (All figures in 1999 dollars) In other words, the median income of recruits in the years covered was near or above the national median income, and higher in 2004 and 2005 than in 1999.
  • From 2003 to 2005, the percentage of recruits from the highest-income quintile rose from 22.17 percent to 22.85 percent.
  • The Department of Defense recently loosened its 2% cap on recruits scoring in Category IV (the lowest category) of the Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT), permitting up to 4% of Category IV recruits. At the same time, the percentage of “high quality” recruits (those scoring above the 50th percentile on the AFQT and holding a high school diploma) increased from 57% in 2001 to 64% in 2005.
  • Whites serve in numbers roughly proportional to their representation in the population. Blacks are overrepresented, with representation having decreased from 2003 to 2005.

  1. Tim Kane and MacKenzie Eaglen, No Atheists in a Foxhole? No Idiots, Either, The New York Times, 08-Nov-06
  2. Tim Kane, Who Are the Recruits? The Demographic Characteristics of U.S. Military Enlistment, 2003-2005, Center For Data Analysis Report #06-09 27-Oct-06

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