Middle-Class Warfare

Military recruits and poverty.


If there's any subject where Marxist theories about economic exploitation still hold sway in America, it's military recruiting. In different ways, Democrats and Republicans both subscribe to the notion that recruits are poor kids driven to enlist by desperate financial conditions. Most recently, it's been an argument for the draft: Impose conscription, the idea goes, and it won't just be poor kids going to war.

Now the conservative Heritage Foundation has analyzed enlistee demographics by looking at household incomes in the zip codes recruits come from. The results indicate a pool of recruits drawn mainly from the middle class. The largest group of new recruits in 2003--18 percent--came from neighborhoods with average annual household incomes of $35,000 to $40,000, compared to a median household income of $43,318. In all, the top two income quintiles (comprising households with incomes starting at $41,688) produced 45 percent of all recruits in 2003. A mere 5 percent came from neighborhoods with average incomes below $20,000 per household.

The Heritage findings make sense: While the military offers some attractions in terms of education, training, and life experience, the effort and commitment required are so great that service in the enlisted ranks will always lose a cost/benefit comparison with even the most humble minimum-wage job. Noneconomic, nonrational motivations such as patriotism, self-esteem building, or just the desire to change one's life are more compelling factors in the decision to join up.

But the concept of the poor man's war, like the specter of Karl Marx, is hard to exorcise. Referring to the same set of data Heritage analyzed, but relying on a selective sampling by the National Priorities Project, The Washington Post turned out a Guthriesque front-page story with the subhead "Recruits' Job Worries Outweigh War Fears."