By Tom Philpott: CNJ columnist
Middle-class American youth are entering the military in significant numbers today, drawn by more competitive pay, a battered civilian job market and the buzz surrounding an improved GI Bill education benefit.
The Department of Defense announced earlier this month that for the first time since the draft ended and the all-volunteer force began 36 years ago, every service branch and reserve component met or exceeded its recruiting goals, both in numbers and quality, in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
A closer look at socio-economic data from recent year groups of recruits shows a rising number drawn from middle-income and higher-income families.
Dr. Curtis Gilroy, director of accession policy for the Department of Defense, explained it by noting the military remains an institution held in high regard, pay has grown steadily more competitive and violence has fallen sharply in Iraq. This leaves parents, teachers, coaches and other “influencers” more willing today to recommend military service.
Patriotism too is an important factor, he said. But the first reason he gives for 2009 being a “banner year” for recruiting is the weak economy.
The recent downturn “resulted in the largest and the swiftest increase in overall unemployment that we’ve ever experienced,” Gilroy said. In March 2007, the overall unemployment rate was 4.4 percent. In just 18 months it spiked to 9.8 percent, creating a boom for military recruiting.
The worst job market collapse in decades combined with a host of other factors creates a near perfect environment for signing military volunteers, temporary though that experience is likely to be, Gilroy said.
“It’s been rather fortuitous the way things have come together,” said the recruit policy chief. “But you know just as things come together, things can certainly fall apart (so) we cannot take our success for granted. … The economy will improve. …When that happens we need to make sure we are resourced (to sustain) recruiting. So we cannot cut recruiting budgets too much, too fast and in the wrong places. We have done that in the past.”
Gilroy said the socio-economic data dispels the myth that recruits hail disproportionately from families in poverty or surviving on modest incomes. He cited a Heritage Foundation study showing that from 1999 to 2007, the percentage of non-prior-service recruits entering the military from families in the nation’s poorest neighborhoods fell from 18 percent down to 10.7 percent. Recruits from families living in the richest one-fifth of neighborhoods rose from 18.6 percent to 24.9 percent.
Recruits in 2006 and 2007, the latest years for available data, were modestly over-representative of neighborhoods where average family income is $40,000 or more. Neighborhoods with family incomes below $40,000 were under-represented among recruits signed during those two years.
Bill Carr, deputy under secretary of defense for military personnel policy, noted at a briefing that recruit pay has been raised steadily in recent years, enough that it now exceeds earnings for 90 percent of civilian youth of like age, education level and experience.
That helps to account for the middle class shift toward military service, Gilroy said. It’s a trend almost certain to be enhanced by the improved education benefits, offered as of August this year, under the new GI Bill.