For decades, I’ve been pointing out a little remarked-upon example of black success: the U.S. Army. Blacks tend not to be the big medal-winners in the Army for bravery in combat, but they tend to get a pretty good life out of joining the Army.
The blacks in the Army tend not to be a random selection of black people: they tend to come from respectable families and have older veteran family members who can explain the system: e.g., here’s how you get a safe rear-echelon job where you’ll learn white collar skills letting you retire at 38 with a pension and get a good office job working for the city and retire from that at 58 with two pensions.
This is an interesting topic because it suggests much about what kind of fields blacks are more likely to thrive in. We live in a society that is constantly in crisis over discovering that blacks are under-represented in yet another profession — Architects! Oceanographers! Sabermetricians! Anglo-Saxonists!
But our discourse doesn’t pay much attention to fields in which blacks seem to do pretty well, such as the Army or football, which tend to have a lot of hierarchy, rules, and their own culture.
In our imagination, the worst thing conceivable is for blacks to get yelled at. And yet, they seem to do pretty well in fields where you start off by getting yelled at all the time by men with whistles around their necks.
From Quarterly Journal of Economics:
Army Service in the All-Volunteer Era
Kyle Greenberg, Matthew Gudgeon, Adam Isen, Corbin Miller, and Richard Patterson
… Despite the role the modern Army might play in generating economic opportunity and reducing racial inequality for service members, there is little causal evidence of the effects of service in the current all-volunteer era. We overcome the identification challenges inherent in disentangling enlistment decisions from other factors by exploiting discontinuities in Army hiring practices and find that enlistment increases cumulative earnings in the 19 years after application.
However, the long-run effects of service differ by race. While enlistment only significantly increases earnings for White applicants in the short-run, we show that the Army is a vehicle of economic mobility for Black Americans—increasing long-run earnings, marriage, and homeownership without adverse employment effects.
In this paper, we estimate the effects of Army service for the universe of Active Duty Army applicants from 1990-2011, exploiting two Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT) score cutoffs—at the 31st and 50th percentile of national math and verbal ability. Department of Defense (DoD) policy requires 96% of recruits to have an AFQT score of 31 or higher and 60% of recruits to have an AFQT of 50 or higher. As a result, the Army rarely accepts applicants with AFQT scores below 31, seldom accepts GED recipients with scores below 50, and often requires applicants to score 50 or higher to receive enlistment bonuses. Consequently, using applicants’ first AFQT scores on file, we find that crossing the 31 and 50 AFQT cutoffs increases the probability of enlistment by 10 and 6 percentage points, respectively. We leverage these AFQT cutoffs to estimate the effect of enlistment on earnings and related outcomes. We link the universe of Active Duty Army applicants to earnings, employment, disability, education, and other administrative records from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), Social Security Administration (SSA), and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). We find that enlisting in the Army increases average annual earnings by over $4,000 at both cutoffs in the 19 years following application.
Our overall earnings estimates mask substantial heterogeneity by race. Enlisting in the Army increases Black applicants’ annual earnings by $5,500 at the 31 AFQT cutoff and by $15,000 at the 50 AFQT cutoff 11-19 years after application. Meanwhile, White applicants experience statistically insignificant earnings losses of approximately $3,000 at the 31 cutoff and insignificant gains of around $4,000 at the 50 cutoff. Compared to their counterfactual earnings trajectories in our sample, Army service closes nearly all of the Black-White earnings gap. Black applicants tend to come from families with lower incomes and from counties with worse economic conditions than White applicants, which could help explain our findings. Indeed, we find some evidence that the Army is more beneficial for those with lower observable proxies of initial economic opportunity, independent of race. Yet, racial differences in the long-run effects of Army service persist even after accounting for pre-application characteristics, suggesting that Army service is distinctly beneficial for Black applicants. We explore potential mechanisms for the greater long-term benefits of Army service for Black relative to White servicemembers. We find that differences in exposure to combat, disability receipt, and post-service educational attainment explain only a small fraction of divergent returns to service by race. However, we do find that Black servicemembers serve for longer and benefit disproportionately from access to a stable and well-paying military job. While the Army tends to be a relatively well-paying job for all servicemembers (Asch et al., 2010), Black servicemembers—who we find would have earned less than White servicemembers in the absence of enlistment—particularly benefit from an Army pay structure that pays Black and White soldiers equally.2 Nevertheless, generous back-of-the-envelope calculations accounting for differences in Army retention and pay (along with combat deployments, disability receipt, and post-service education) still leave approximately $6,000-$12,000 of the Black-White gap to be explained. As a result, Black service members necessarily experience larger increases in long-run post-service earnings. Indeed, we find that Black service members are more likely to be employed in high-paying industries 19 years after enlisting. They are also more likely to be employed in the public sector. These patterns are less evident for White service members. Although the precise elements of Army service that are most beneficial relative to civilian counterfactuals are unclear, potential explanations include increased human capital not captured by educational differences, access to networks, or credentialing effects that diminish racial discrimination (De Tray, 1982; Kleykamp, 2009).
This new study confirms much of what I wrote in an article for UPI 19 years ago:
TOP NEWS JAN. 16, 2003 / 12:19 PM
Analysis: Are soldiers black and poor?
By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 15 (UPI) — Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., a Korean War veteran, has introduced a bill to reinstate the military draft, arguing, “A disproportionate number of the poor and members of minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the [volunteer] military…”
Indeed, in a little noticed development, the percentage of military personnel who were minorities shot upward during the years from 1995 to 2000, with enlisted ranks rising from 28 percent to 38 percent minority (compared to 30 percent of the national population), and the officer corps growing from 11 percent to 19 percent.
The booming economy of the late 1990s may have made it harder for the Pentagon to recruit whites, who tend to enjoy more lucrative opportunities in the civilian economy than do blacks or Hispanics.
Blacks are found disproportionately in the military, while Hispanic residents, many of whom are not citizens, are slightly underrepresented. Blacks are found most heavily in the Army and are least common in the Air Force.
Contrary to popular belief, blacks have not died in combat in disproportionate numbers, even in Vietnam. Two leading military sociologists, Charles Moskos of Northwestern and John Sibley Butler of the University of Texas, researched this carefully for their 1996 book “All We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way.”
They reported, “Black fatalities amounted to 12.1 percent of all Americans killed in Southeast Asia — a figure proportional to the number of blacks in the U.S. population at the time and slightly lower than the proportion of blacks in the Army at the close of the war.”
(Moskos favors reinstituting the draft. He says Rangel’s argument “persuasive” but that the most important reason is that the military is undermanned and relies too heavily on reserves.)
In recent decades, blacks have tended to gravitate away from combat jobs. In arguing against Rangel’s bill, the Department of Defense noted, “Blacks today account for 21 percent of the enlisted force, but make up only 15 percent of combat arms (e.g., infantry, armor, artillery).”
African-Americans make up about 13 percent of young adults, so they are still somewhat over-represented in combat positions.
“In contrast, blacks account for 36 percent of Functional Support and Administration and 27 percent of Medical and Dental career fields. ”
Interestingly, the military today seems to attract pugnacious whites and pragmatic blacks. Analysts have suggested that more young white men see the infantry as a way, in the words of one, to “play Rambo” from age 18 to 22, then go to college using military tuition benefits. In contrast, blacks often view the military as either a long-term career in itself, or as a way to get practical training for a civilian white-collar career.
Are soldiers the products of particularly poor families? In general, the enlisted ranks come from neither the top nor the bottom of society, but from working and middle class backgrounds. Very few enlistees appear to be the scions of the wealthy. (Some officers are from rich families, however; but a larger proportion of officers are the sons and daughters of officers.)
White enlistees tend to come from households somewhat lower in income than the general white population: $33,500 per year versus $44,400 for the average white, according to 1999 Defense Department statistics. Strikingly, black enlistees come from households above the black national average: $32,000 vs. $27,900.
In fact, on a number of measures, African-American enlistees tend to stand well above the black average and very close to, or above, the mean for white enlistees. The celebrated high degree of racial equality and amity found in the military, especially in the Army, would appear to benefit from the similar backgrounds that black and white soldiers bring to the Army.
Not only do black and white soldiers come from households of almost equal income, but their educational attainments are virtually identical. In 1994, 99 percent of black and 97 percent of white Army enlisted personnel were high school graduates, figures above the national average.
When the Volunteer Army began three decades ago, black recruits had much higher graduation rates that whites. In the late 1970s, according to Moskos and Sibley, 90 percent of black Army enlistees had their degrees, versus only about 40 percent of whites. After the large pay raises of the early 1980s, the Army was able to recruit a better-educated group of youth, so the black advantage narrowed as both groups’ graduations rates approached 100 percent.
The racial gap in test scores that bedevils American civilian society is a much smaller problem in the Army.
Moskos and Sibley found that in 1994: “83 percent of white recruits scored in the upper half of the mental aptitude test (compared with 61 percent of white youths in the national population), while 59 percent of black recruits scored in the upper half (compared with 14 percent of the black youths nationwide).”
African-American enlistees are also more likely to come from two-parent families than is the norm among blacks, the Defense Department says.