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The Progressive

Economic Downturn Will Push More into the Military

Maryam Roberts

One sector benefiting from the economic downturn is military recruitment, often at the expense of enlistees.

Hard times are forcing people to make life-changing decisions, especially those who have little choice but to join the military.

We've lost 3.3 million jobs in the last six months alone, as the unemployment rate has vaulted over the 8 percent bar.

The job market is terrible, and higher education is becoming more unaffordable, as colleges slash their financial assistance and raise tuition. Welfare support for young mothers is dwindling, with states tossing thousands off the rolls.

For the poor and the unemployed, who are disproportionately people of color, the military is one of the only institutions with resources to help them - or their children. Military recruiters already recruit larger numbers from low-income and communities of color. Blacks and Latinos are consistently overrepresented in the armed forces, especially in enlisted ranks.

In 2008, all four branches of the armed forces met their recruiting goals for the federal fiscal year, as 185,000 men and women signed up for service. This was the highest number of people joining since 2003. The number will likely rise, as the economy gets worse.

The Army offers attractive signing bonuses of $40,000, as well as support with college tuition and valuable job training.

For many enlistees, these economic incentives outweigh the inherent dangers of joining the military even as it is engaged in two active occupations, one in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan.

To be sure, the military is a good experience for some.

But for many others, particularly women, people of color and gays and lesbians, it is not such a supportive environment. Harassment, abuse and assault are all too common.

For instance, one in three women in the military have experienced sexual harassment or assault, according to the Pentagon's own figures. And this month, the Pentagon acknowledged that the number of sexual assaults increased by 8 percent in 2008, with more than half of those involving rape.

That's why the "economic draft," as it is called, is so cruel.

It's time to start seeing the whole picture, not just the one portrayed in those glossy ads and television commercials the military produces to lure young, impressionable students looking for a way to pay for their education or to persuade desperate young mothers needing to provide for their children or to entice young men looking for a way to climb out of poverty and debt.

We need to offer them real alternatives - jobs, job training and scholarship resources - so they have a real choice, not one that is coerced by their economic straits.

We must do what we can to shift from an economy for the military, to an economy for the people.

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Maryam Roberts is the peace & solidarity program director at the Women of Color Resource Center in Oakland, Calif. She can be reached at

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