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Military's Recruiting Troubles Extend to Affluent War Supporters
By Terry M. Neal
There was an eye-opening article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a few days ago that explored the increasing difficulty the military is having recruiting young people to enlist. As has been well reported in many newspapers, including The Washington Post, the Army and Marines are having a particularly tough time meeting recruitment objectives, in part because of Americans' concern about the war in Iraq.
When you dig deeper into the reason for this phenomenon, it turns out that parents of potential soldiers and sailors are becoming one of the biggest obstacles facing military recruiters. Even top military officials acknowledge this and unveiled a new series of ads this spring targeted at "influencers" such as parents, teachers and coaches.
But the Post-Gazette raises another issue. There has been much talk about the relationship between race and ethnicity and military recruitment. But what about social and economic class? Are wealthier Americans, who are more likely to be Republicans and therefore more likely to support the war, stepping up to the plate and urging their children and others from their communities to enlist?
Unfortunately, there has been no definitive study on this subject. But it appears that the affluent are not encouraging their children and peers to join the war effort on the battlefield.
The writer of the Post-Gazette article, Jack Kelly, explored this question in his story that ran on Aug. 11. Kelly wrote of a Marine recruiter, Staff Sgt. Jason Rivera, who went to an affluent suburb outside of Pittsburgh to follow up with a young man who had expressed interest in enlisting. He pulled up to a house with American flags displayed in the yard. The mother came to the door in an American flag T-shirt and openly declared her support for the troops.
But she made it clear that her support only went so far.
"Military service isn't for our son," she told Rivera. "It isn't for our kind of people."
The Post-Gazette piece focused on parental disapproval of military recruitment efforts, and dealt only tangentially with the larger question of class. What we do know is that recruiting is down across the board and that both the Army and Marines have fallen significantly behind their recruiting goals.
This is what the Army's hired advertising company, Leo Burnett, had to say about the ads targeting influencers that it began running in April: "Titled 'Dinner Conversation,' 'Two Things,' 'Good Training' and 'Listening' (Spanish-language ad), the commercials portray moments ranging from a son telling his mother he's found someone to pay for college, to a father praising his son who has just returned from Basic Training for the positive ways in which he's changed. They capture the questions, hopes and concerns parents have about a career serving the United States of America and include families from many different backgrounds."
I asked Army spokeswoman Maj. Elizabeth Robbins for further explanation on the intent of the ads.
"Clearly it was to talk to influencers," she said. She said studies have shown that today's young people yearn to serve their country in one way or another. The problem is that today the people who influence their decisions "are less likely than they were in past generations to recommend [military service]."
"In part because the economy is strong," said Robbins. "In part because they are concerned about the war. And in part because fewer of them have a direct relationship with the military or have ever served."
So would it be logical to conclude that, if the strong economy is one of the reasons it is more difficult to recruit, the most affluent parents should be the most difficult to reach? After all, their children have more options, including college, than less affluent parents? And if that's true, isn't it somewhat ironic that the military is paying millions of dollars ultimately to influence the behavior of the parents who are among the most likely to be supportive of the war in Iraq?
"I disagree with your premise," Robbins said, arguing that the military is represented strongly across the board by people of all income levels and faces challenges in recruiting at all income levels."
Referring to the Post-Gazette anecdote, she said, "One woman saying stupid things does not a trend make."
Actually, I did have a premise, but it wasn't unshakable because neither the Army nor the Defense Department keeps detailed information about the household incomes of the people who join.
So let's approach the issue this way: In the 2004 election, household income was a pretty decent indicator of how one might vote. Voters from households making more than $50,000 a year favored Bush 56 percent to 43 percent. Voters making $50,000 or less favored Kerry 55-44 percent. Median household income as of 2003 was $43,318, according to the U.S. Census.
The wealthier you become, apparently, the more likely you are to vote Republican. The GOP advantage grows more pronounced for people from households making more than $100,000. People from households with incomes exceeding that amount voted for Bush over Kerry by 58 percent to 41 percent. Those from households making less than $100,000 favored Kerry over Bush 51-49 percent. And nearly two-thirds of voters from households making more than $200,000 favored Bush over Kerry.
Those making more than $100,000 made up only 18 percent of the electorate, which explains why Bush won by a narrow 2.5 percentage points in the general election.
This raises all sorts of complicated socioeconomic questions, such as whether the rich expect others to fight their wars for them. Or, asked another way, are they more likely to support the war in Iraq because their families are less likely to carry part of the burden?
Certainly, there are no absolutes here. Many of the wealthy are Democrats, some of whom support the war. Some of whom oppose it. Many of the poor and working class are Republicans, and support the GOP on Iraq.
By looking at long-term trends, it seems logical that some of those most likely to support Bush and his Iraq policy are also those least likely to encourage their children to go into the military at wartime. And it raises questions, such as, if you are among those most likely to support the war, shouldn't you be among those most likely to encourage your child to serve in the military? Shouldn't your socioeconomic group be the most receptive to the recruiters' call? And would there be a recruitment problem at all if the affluent put their money where their mouth is?
Several social scientists have studied the question of economics and class in military enlistment. Many of these studies don't look at the officer ranks, which might tend to counter some of the class argument. But officers, of course, make up a relatively small portion of the military.
Among the more recent studies was one done last year by Robert Cushing, a retired professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. He tracked those who died in Iraq by geography and found that whites from small, mostly poor, rural areas made up a disproportionately large percentage of the casualties in Iraq.
I talked to two other academicians who have studied the issue. Their conclusions, though reached prior to the war in Iraq, were helpful because of their understanding of the historical implications of the class question.
David R. Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organizations at the University of Maryland, said contrary to conventional wisdom both the poorest and the wealthiest people are underrepresented at the bottom of the military ranks, for completely different reasons. This trend held for both from the conscription years of Vietnam through at least the late 1990s.
Poorer people, he said, are likely to be kept out of the military by a range of factors, including higher likelihood of having a criminal record or academic deficiencies or health problems.
Back during Vietnam, "the top [economic class] had access for means of staying out of the military," said Segal. "The National Guard was known to be a well-to-do white man's club back then. People knew if you if joined the guard you weren't going to go to Vietnam. That included people like Dan Quayle and our current commander in chief. If you were rich, you might have found it easier to get a doctor to certify you as having a condition that precluded you from service. You could get a medical deferment with braces on your teeth, so you would go get braces -- something that was very expensive back then. The wealthy had more access to educational and occupational deferments."
Today's affluent merely see themselves as having more options and are not as enticed by financial incentives, such as money for college, Segal said.
Segal said that service members in the highest and lowest income brackets are underrepresented in the modern military. The Army was able to provide socio-economic data only for the 2002 fiscal year. Its numbers confirm Segal's findings, but because those numbers chronicle enlistments in the year immediately following the 2001 terrorist attacks, it's difficult to ascertain whether it was a normal recruiting year.
Segal and Jerald G. Bachman, a research professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, have studied the correlation between a parental education levels and likelihood for their offspring to enlist.
Examining data from early to mid-1990s, they created five categories, with one being the lowest level to five being the highest level. Perhaps not surprisingly, they found the children of the most-educated parents -- those with post-graduate degrees -- were the least likely to join the military. The children of parents with high school diplomas were three times more likely to enlist.
One of the interesting phenomenon of today's politics is that, in general, Republicans tend to be more educated on average than Democrats, with a larger percentage either holding a bachelor's degree or having attended some college. But Democrats represent a larger portion of the super-educated -- that is, those holding graduate degrees. So Democrats are made up largely of the least and most educated, with Republicans congregated near, but not at, the top.
So how did those near the top of the educational tree do in Segal's and Bachman's study? They were half as likely as those in group two to enlist. And because there are far more people who have been to college or have bachelor's degrees than there are people who have post-graduate degrees, the former group has far more political influence, just in sheer numbers.
While there have been changes in racial and ethnic enlistment trends, with the number of black recruits dropping precipitously since the Iraq war, Segal and Bachman said they've seen nothing to indicate significant changes in the class -- of which education levels is a prime indicator -- trends in the military.
Journalists can get themselves in trouble by drawing simplistic conclusions based on less-than-exhaustive research, and we won't do so here. But we can at least raise the question of whether the rich are more likely to support the war because their loved ones are less likely to die in it.