Military enrollment and Inequality
As we watch the war in Ukraine unfold, where men aged 18-60 are required to stay and fight, what does our own armed service look like in America?
Tes Solomon Kifle, a Black Marine, explains the struggles of Black service members who join. “My mom was crying when I joined. She was deathly against it.” Tes goes on to explain Many African-Americans saw military service not as a career but as a way to help pay for education or to help compete in the civilian job market. By contrast, many White service members with long family histories of service sign up for what they call the “warrior culture,” because that is what is expected, and it is what their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers did.
📊 Black men are highly overrepresented in the military compared to the overall population. More than 20% of the military is Black, while only 10% of the civilian population is Black (which roughly tracks the overall population). Overall, 43% of the 1.3 million men and women on active duty in the United States military are people of color.
But this inequity doesn’t just appear in the ranks, it also appears in the line of fire. Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and low-income students were overrepresented among the enlistees most often put in harm’s way.
9/11 changed the recruitment pipeline
When George W. Bush signed the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, he opened the door for a new kind of military recruitment. While No Child Left Behind is generally known for its state testing requirements, a lesser known part of the Act (section 9528) required that all public schools grant military recruiters “the same access to secondary school students as is provided generally to post secondary educational institutions or to prospective employers.” NCLBA thus paved the way to make it far easier for the military to make its way into public schools and reach different populations.
💸 The military now spends nearly $4 billion a year recruiting young Americans to join through advertisements and one-on-one contact. It costs roughly $15,000 for the military to recruit 1 person.
ROTC programs are disproportionately in low-income communities
But formal engagement is the only way that the military ends up recruiting soldiers. The U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (J-ROTC) has 500,000 members across America coming from 3,400 programs. This is one of the largest feeder programs into the military.
🏫 However, J-ROTC programs disproportionately emerge in low-income and minority neighborhoods. A RAND corporation study found that In schools with J-ROTC programs exist, 56% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch programs, but in schools without J-ROTC programs, only 46% of students qualify. In schools with J-ROTC programs, Black students are 29.4% of the class, but in schools without J-ROTC programs, Black students make up just 12% of the class. This indicates that J-ROTC programs are much more likely to show up in low-income and minority schools.
Even when we dive into regions like in LA county, this divide persists. 2 in 5 high-minority schools have a J-ROTC program, and nearly 1 in 2 low-income schools have a J-ROTC program.
J-ROTC enrollment in LA County High Schools grew 40% from 2000 to 2005.
The South provides +20% more recruits than expected based on population
The South provides more than its fair share of army recruits. 11% of the army comes from Virginia, despite being only 2.5% of the country’s population. Nearly 9% of the army comes from North Carolina, despite only being 3% of the country’s population.
South Carolina had the highest over-representation of service members at 1.5, meaning it contributed 50 percent more than its share of the country's 18-24 year olds. Florida, Hawaii, Georgia, and Alabama follow.
In 2019, Fayetteville, North Carolina., which is home to Fort Bragg, provided more than 2x as many military enlistees as did Manhattan in NYC, even though Manhattan has 8x as many people.
Military as a path to opportunity?
📈 The military will cover 100% of tuition costs and as tuition costs continue to rise, this can look increasingly appetizing. The military will also provide much more affordable loans for service members looking for housing. Savings plans, retirement benefits, and healthcare plans are among the many benefits that continue to accrue for service members.
This looks especially appetizing if you come from a community with few paths to opportunity. Not only do you get these financial benefits, you get community, mission, skills, leadership.
📚 According to a 2011 Pew Research poll, 75% of those enlisted did so to obtain educational benefits. A majority of veterans say that the military was very useful or somewhat useful for finding employment.
Over the last 18 years, active duty military pay increases significantly outpaced their civilian counterparts. Officer earnings are 88% higher than earnings of civilians with bachelor’s degrees, and 47% higher than earnings of those with graduate-level degrees. If you come from a county with few job prospects or low earnings potential, this seems like an incredible way to support yourself and your family.
The Path Forward
The military is far more than a job. It has a deeply powerful influence on America’s identity, culture, and wellbeing. But it also is a massive system with a deep history, and like any such space, there is room to grow.
On July 15, 2020, the Department of Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion provided recommendations to improve the improve the military’s diversity and inclusion and broaden equal opportunity for all members of the Armed Forces. While some of those recommendations are tremendously weak (“Recommendation 1: Update Recruiting Content to Represent All Service Members.“) some of these provide a good direction for how the military can ensure that it does not propagate systems of inequality and that it can in fact push against these
👨👨👦👦 Break up the family pipeline - Pentagon data show that 80% of recent troops come from at least one family member has also worn their nation’s uniform. This number has been largely consistent over the last decade. In America, your parent’s life choices are highly indicative of your future outcomes. If the military continues to recruit from the same families and the same homes, then the organization will struggle to become more diverse and will struggle to create different paths of opportunities for Americans.
🎖 Improve opportunity within the military - The military has 11x more White officers than senior officers of color. If so many Americans are joining the military becomes of the opportunity it provides afterwards, the military needs to stop keeping communities out of opportunity even during their times of services. The rank that you leave the military with can equate to hundreds of thousands of dollars difference over a lifetime in possible earnings.
🚀 Reallocate military funding towards opportunity - What if we took that $4 billion spent on military recruitment and spent it elsewhere? What if Americans didn’t have to put their lives on the line to go to college? The cost of 34 B-2 fighter jets could completely pay for tuition free college for all Americans. Taking just 1 in 10 dollars from the DoD’s budget would do the same. While decreasing the size of the military budget has rarely been a politically favorable thing to do (and also important to note that Democratic presidents presided over 4 of the 5 big military build-ups in the 20th century), improving opportunity may be the reframe that shifts the winds.
Sgt. First Class Dustin Comes recruits young Americans to join the army, and he knows the pitch that works. “We just tell them our story: ‘This is where I was, one of six kids living in a trailer. And now this is where I am today.’ Good pay check. Great benefits.” He noted that his biggest challenge is finding recruits before they are scooped up by other branches of the military who also work the same fertile ground. Sgt. Comes joined the army because his father served, and now two of his four children want to do the same.