“It's really hard to make the things you were doing in Iraq relevant to what an employer is looking for today.” — Army Cpl. Vicki Angell
It is a commonplace of American working-class culture that military service is a pathway into the middle class. The experience of World War II veterans fixed the myth of upward mobility in the national consciousness. Military service came to be seen as the way out of the “ghetto,” the “barrio,” and every other class-determined location where poverty and limited economic opportunity block hopes and aspirations. Today, military recruiters make the promise of “bettering oneself” the cornerstone of their high-stakes sales pitch to young people in search of a productive future.
Several new surveys of veterans, however, expose the shaky foundations of the myth of mobility. Late last year, Military.com, a Web site within the Monster Worldwide network, polled 4,442 veterans and active duty servicemen. During the same period, the Department of Veterans Affairs hired Abt Associates of Bethesda, Maryland to conduct a study of 1,941 recently separated service members (RSS) who had been discharged within the last one to three years.
The results of the Military.com survey were startling. Of all the recently discharged veterans questioned:
- 81% felt that they were not well positioned to enter the civilian workforce
- 76% expressed the opinion that the job skills learned in the military could not be transferred to the civilian labor force.
- 72% stated they lacked the ability to negotiate salary and benefits with employers.
The Abt Associates report revealed that rather than lifting working people out of the lowest echelons of U.S. society, military service in essence locked individuals into their pre-service class position by either delaying or precluding their ability to further their education.
According to the report, from 1991 to 2003 the average unemployment rates for RSS were significantly higher than those of their civilian counterparts who had equal levels of education (referred to as the MCG or matched comparison group). During the two years following discharge, RSS unemployment rates were at 9.5% while MCG rates were less than half that figure or 4.3%.
Other findings included:
- 25% of RSS earn less than $21,840 a year (in 2007 the U.S. Census Poverty Threshold for a family of four was $21,201).
- RSS are significantly more likely to be in low family incomes (under $29,000) compared to the MCG for up to eight years after separation from the military.
- In 2001, RSS earned on average $5,736 less per year than their civilian counterparts with equal levels of education.
- RSS with four-year college degrees earned on average $9,526 less per year than their civilian counterparts with equal levels of education.
- Compared to college-educated non-veterans, college-educated veterans were more likely to be in the low-wage category.
- RSS who had higher military ranks were less likely to have the same or increased responsibility in their civilian jobs.
Those fortunate veterans who make it into the labor force, then, may find themselves frozen in the same lower economic status from which they began before enlisting. But many do not even make it into what is essentially career limbo. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the percentage of military veterans currently not in the work force more than doubled from 10% in 2000 to 23% in 2005. Young veterans were the hardest hit in terms of making a successful transition into civilian life. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobless rate for veterans between ages 20 and 24 has been three times higher than the overall rate for that age range every year since 1990.
Moreover, veterans’ benefits and VA job training programs do not guarantee future success. As the Abt Associates report notes: “Unfortunately, we found that receiving the GI Bill was not a strong predictor of successful employment outcomes such as high earnings, responsibility in civilian work and placement in senior management.” A recent RAND Corporation study concluded that currently existing transition-assistance programs offered by the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs could not be expected to improve the situation and that “we would expect even major improvements in transition programs to have only modest effects on unemployment.”
Despite years of anecdotal evidence about military experience leading to better life chances, these new studies indicate that most of those who enlist in fact may be jeopardizing their long-term success. Many veterans will respond that they joined not to better their economic opportunities but to serve their country. But after five years of the Bush administration’s misuse and abuse of the patriotic good intentions of thousands of service members, such noble sentiments lie shipwrecked on the shoals of the neocons’ unnecessary wars and the effects of nearly 30 years of conservative assaults against any kind of social safety net even for those who “wore the uniform.”
Information sources: Abt Associates, “Employment Histories Report: Final Compilation Report” (September 28, 2007); “Military.com Study Reveals Profound Disconnect between Employers and Transitioning Military Personnel” (November 5, 2007); Yochi J. Dreason, “Veterans Struggle to Join Work Force,” Wall Street Journal (March 25, 2008); Bogdan Savych, Jacob Alex Klerman, David S. Loughran, “Recent Trends in Veteran Unemployment as Measured in the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey,” RAND National Defense Research Institute, 2008.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter
of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (http://www.comdsd.org)