The Corner

National Security & Defense

Probably Enough Good Men

U.S. Army recruits march during basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., in 2006. (Staff Sergeant Shawn Weismiller/US Army)

In response to Too Few Good Men

Ramesh points to Mark Perry’s calculation purporting to show a remarkably low number of young people qualified for the military. I’m skeptical. Here are the relevant passages again:

[O]ne in three potential recruits are disqualified from service because they’re overweight, one in four cannot meet minimal educational standards (a high school diploma or GED equivalent), and one in 10 have a criminal history. In plain terms, about 71 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds (the military’s target pool of potential recruits) are disqualified from the minute they enter a recruiting station: that’s 24 million out of 34 million Americans. . . .

[I]f only one in eight of 10 million in this age group actually want to join the military, that leaves a pool of 1,250,000 potential recruits. If 30 percent of those can’t pass the AFQT, that number becomes 750,000.

Wait, 25 percent of young people are high-school dropouts? No way. According to Census data, just 11.5 percent of 19-year-olds lack a high-school diploma or GED. (Maybe the “one in four” dropout statistic includes some 17- and 18-year-olds still in school?) Perry then implies that 30 percent of otherwise-qualified recruits will fail the AFQT, which is a test of math and verbal skills. I don’t see how so many would fail. The military requires applicants to score above the 30th percentile of the general population. Applicants who meet the other educational and fitness and law-abidingness requirements are already above average. They will surely pass the AFQT more than 70 percent of the time.

The source of these dubious statistics appears to be the Council for a Strong America, a liberal advocacy group whose solution to military-recruitment problems is more public preschool. Its “Mission: Readiness” subsidiary has a dire report on military recruiting, but it offers no data analysis – just assertions from military officials. For example, its evidence that “one out of four young Americans lacks a high school diploma” is a personal communication from a military analyst. (In fact, most of the report promotes old chestnuts like Perry Preschool and the Abecedarian program. I suspect that “Mission: Readiness,” whose funders include Pre-K Now and the Birth To Five Policy Alliance, is a lot more interested in preschool than it is in the military.)

Overall, the recruitment problem is probably overblown. Some eligibility constraints are hard to change, such as AFQT and criminality, but others are easier. The military is quite good at getting people in shape, so the fitness problem seems manageable. As for getting young people interested in signing up, there are probably many steps that could be taken to make the services more appealing, including higher recruitment bonuses when the private-sector labor market is strong (such as now). The broader point here is that the number of potential recruits is partly a function of how badly the military wants recruits in the first place. Trying to put a single number on who is eligible, assuming no other policy changes, does not seem all that helpful. Again, maybe I’m wrong to be skeptical of a recruiting crisis, but the evidence presented so far is not convincing.


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