Downsizing of military reduces its role as educator of the poor

March 04, 1994|By Anne C. Lewis

THE images from newspapers and TV screens stay in mind because they are so poignant. In them, we see a proud family, holding or standing next to a framed portrait of a son or daughter in full military dress. In poor and minority families, these are pictures of success, of young people who have found a way to get out of poverty and start climbing up the social ladder. They inspire siblings, spouses and friends, and they give parents hope that things can be better for their children.

What military service has given, it is about to take away from thousands of young people. The current downsizing of the military means 100,000 fewer slots for new recruits or re-enlistments during each of the next four years. For high school graduates who do not enroll in four-year institutions, the military has long been a popular alternative. For example, in 1991, 17 percent of all graduates from education and training programs of less than four years' duration had been in military programs.

True, military policy has already all but shut out the "losers" in the high school population. In 1992 only 2 percent of recruits were high school dropouts, and these few were screened carefully. Holders of General Education Development certificates (GEDs) are far down in the selection pool. This tightening up on enlistment criteria began many years ago -- about the time we shifted to an all-volunteer military force. Only anecdotal evidence is available, of course, but there must be a correlation between the diminishing opportunities for young people in the military and the increase in hopelessness among poor and minority youths, especially those in the cities. The decrease in military green and the increase in prison gray are surely related. Even if only a few good men and women have been selected from the pool of high school graduates in recent years, the perception that military service is an option kept many adolescents in school.

Why should educators be concerned about these policy decisions made by the military brass? Because these decisions will have a ripple effect in a great many contexts -- high schools, training programs, higher education and fragile families and communities. The military is aware of the problems that will be created. It is conducting studies, supporting junior ROTC training programs in places that produce recruits with the skills it needs and developing general resources for career planning. What the experts seem to agree on so far is that the recruiting policy creates situations that are not going to fade away. Indeed, the policy will probably hasten changes -- some very troubling -- that are already taking place in many settings. Consider these findings:

* The military represents a way for poor and minority youths to gain access to postsecondary education. Young veterans who are members of minority groups are much more likely to use the educational benefits for higher education (rather than training) than are their white counterparts. By using the lure of college, the military has been creaming off the college-eligible recruits among black high school graduates. (In a recent survey, almost two-thirds of those not re-enlisting said that the education benefits were one of the most important reasons they had enlisted in the first place.)

* Providing a combination of education and training, the military has also been creating for the civilian labor force a pool of young people who are prepared for high-tech work.

* Poor and minority young people benefit from military service in several ways. The civilian earnings of white youths are not enhanced by military experience (some studies even show a negative correlation), but black and Hispanic veterans do better than their peers who did not enlist. More important, the military "is a place to spend one's youth purposefully," according to Stephen Barley of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. Military service puts urban minority youths in a culture that rewards achievement.

* The downsizing means that young people who would have joined the military are now likely to find civilian jobs, but they will not have the opportunities for education and training that have in the past provided upward mobility for those who served in the military.

* This pool of young people who might have gone into the military will probably displace the most disadvantaged on the job ladder -- those with little education and few opportunities.

Who is responsible and what should be done for the 400,000 or so young people -- many only marginally employable -- who will be entering a civilian job market that is increasingly interested in workers with higher-order skills?

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