Historically, the American armed forces were disproportionally drawn from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. A transition toward a smaller and more selective military has changed this tendency. Since the armed forces do not gather data on recruits’ family income, previous studies relied on geographic data to proxy for economic background. We improve on previous literature using individual-level data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 and study population representativeness in the years 1997–2011.
We find that recruits score higher than the civilian population on cognitive skill tests, and come from households with above average median parental income and wealth. Moreover, both the lowest and highest parental income categories are under-represented. Higher skill test scores increase enlistment rates from lower- and middle-income families while decreasing them for high income families. The over-representation of minorities in the military has declined in recent decades. Non-Hispanic White casualties are now over-represented in Iraq and Afghanistan.