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The Military Views Poor Kids as Fodder for Its Forever Wars

As the United States staggers toward war, it will try to draw troops from the same poor, rural neighborhoods it always has.

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In my high school in rural North Carolina, a plastic table was set up just off to the side of the atrium where we all congregated after lunch every day. Behind that pamphlet-strewn table was a man in the recognizable khaki of a Marine’s service uniform. With a smile that never left his face, he’d reach out a hand and ask about your day. He’d inquire about your classes, whether you played sports, who you rooted for. Then, after maybe two or three minutes of small talk, he’d make his pitch.

It was always the same: fast-tracked citizenship; relief from the financial pressure of attending college; real employment prospects in a recession-era economy that had left many of my classmates’ parents without jobs. He was the flesh-and-blood version of the television propaganda we had already seen a million times over by then. But his pitch, run against a limited set of options, sounded like a good deal. It was supposed to.

That recruiter’s presence at my school was the result of a particularly insidious piece of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, signed by George W. Bush, which required that all public schools grant military recruiters “the same access to secondary school students as is provided generally to post secondary educational institutions or to prospective employers.” That table was his equal access. 

While the law handed the military a clean reach into American high schools, its recruitment efforts remained selective. Enlistment data paints a complicated portrait of the economic makeup of the military, but what we know about recruitment is more straightforward: The Pentagon views low-income kids as easy targets for its forever wars.

In 2015, a pair of Education Week reporters making use of the Freedom of Information Act reviewed the Army’s presence in Connecticut high schools and found major discrepancies in how the branch targeted middle-class and poor kids. Throughout the entire 2011–2012 school year, Army recruiters visited a higher-income high school—in which only 5 percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunch—just four times. By contrast, at another high school, where nearly half of the students qualified, Army recruiters stopped by more than 40 times before the spring semester’s final bell.

Military-staffed tables are far from the only recruitment tactic to be embedded in the public school system. There are currently an estimated 500,000 American children enrolled in 3,400 U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs in high schools across the nation. JROTC is technically not military recruitment—it bills itself instead as “one of the largest character development and citizenship programs for youth in the world”—but it does offer enlistment incentives and can function as a pipeline to the military. 

These programs have a very specific target audience. In 2017, the RAND Corporation reviewed JROTC programs across the country and found that “at public high schools with JROTC programs, 56.6 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, on average”nearly 10 percentage points higher than at schools without JROTC. Likewise, the study found that the military program tends to be present at schools with higher minority populations: At schools with JROTC, black students make up 29.4 percent of the school, compared to just 12.1 percent at non-JROTC schools. (Geography is also part of the story here: Between 40 and 65 percent of JROTC programs are clustered in the Southeast, according to the RAND report.) 

This kind of influence extends beyond schools: In 2002, Bush used powers granted to him by the Immigration and Nationality Act to fast-track the naturalization of any noncitizens serving since 9/11, and the following year, the National Defense Authorization Act allowed for these service members’ citizenship ceremonies to occur overseas. (Sadly but not surprisingly, undocumented soldiers would later be denied the safety and opportunity this country once promised them.) 

While white service members still make up the majority of the armed forces, after the attacks of September 11, Native peoples served at the highest rate of any ethnic group in the country. Among the other groups with high enlistment rates were black women. In 2012, MintPress published a piece looking at the uptick in the recruitment of women, and this past year, Teen Voguesomewhat presciently, rolled out a modern version of the same observation. 

In the face of yet another possible war, tracking which areas and schools the military is targeting for recruitment is just as important as understanding who’s actually enlisting. The paths that service members travel to the military are different, but there are base circumstances that often connect them: Being poor means a lack of options; being middle-class often means mounds of debt and instability. The military promises solutions to all of that.  

This kind of capitalization on inequity isn’t new. During draft years, wealthy families were able to shield their sons from the consequences of endless wars—the president included. But even after the draft ended in 1973, the military focused its recruiting efforts on the middle and lower classes, as well as those with service history in their families. The Seattle Times reported in 2005 that “nearly half” of new recruits came “from lower-middle-class to poor households, according to new Pentagon data based on ZIP codes and census estimates of mean household income.” The same data showed that nearly two-thirds of Army recruits in 2004 “came from counties in which median household income is below the U.S. median.” 

This week, Anthony Clark, an Air Force veteran and Democratic congressional candidate in Illinois, noted how deeply embedded this trend is in American military service, detailing how he, his brother, father, and grandfather were all drafted or enlisted because “poverty is the draft.” Chris Overfelt, a representative of Veterans for Peace, offered a similar message to the House Budget Committee in June 2019. “There is always enough money for more weapons and jails, and never enough for education and the poor,” he said. “Instead of this money going to healthcare and education for our citizens who so desperately need it, it goes toward padding the pockets of Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and the list goes on and on.”

So as this country staggers toward another potential front in its forever wars, it’s clear that the warnings about predatory recruitment first staked out 15 years ago bear repeating. Because this is the true face of the modern draft: not a list of names and a lottery, but an economic system that creates generational precarity and offers little but a narrow, violent, and deadly way out.