DoD’s next challenge: managing the fall of our military welfare state

Summary: The military is often described as a test tube for American social science, running experiments such as integration of race, sex, and gender in its relatively controlled society. But the largest social science experiment in the military — perhaps the largest in US history — is DoD’s socialism. We close our eyes, preferring not to see it. Now the military’s spending priorities are changing, and we’ll see the effects on recruitment and retention as it is eroded away. Here Jennifer Mittelstadt explains the history and workings of the military “welfare state”.

The Rise of the Military Welfare State
Available at Amazon (2015).

Military socialism under siege

Under pressure from the increasingly outlandish cost of hardware (e.g., carriers, the F-35), DoD has chosen to cut compensation of its people. It is one of the most important and least covered defense issues (a minor sideshow, keeping the A-10 Warthog, has received 100x the attention).

One of the best articles I’ve seen in years about this is “Welfare’s last stand” by Jennifer Mittelstadt (Assoc Prof of History at Rutgers) at Aeon, 21 September 2015 — “Long in retreat in the US, the welfare state found a haven in an unlikely place – the military, where it thrived for decades.”

Her essay does not respond the usual rebuttal to these facts: this social safety net is compensation for risk borne by our troops. In fact it covers everybody in our uniformed services, during peace and war. It is not limited to those in war zones. It is not limited to those experiencing non-combat risks greater than those of most civilian jobs (and the even smaller number exposed to risks greater than those of the most dangerous civilian job (logging and fishing).

I assume Mittelstadt called it “military welfare” for the shock value. In fact welfare is much more selective in its benefits than the “safety net” inside the military — so “military socialism” fits better.

For more see her book The Rise of the Military Welfare State (2015) — which I ordered today.

Opening of “Welfare’s last stand”

Over the past four decades in the United States, as the country has slashed its welfare state and employers gutted traditional job benefits, growing numbers of people, especially from the working class, grasped for a new safety net – the military. Everyone recognises that the US armed forces have become a global colossus. But few know that, along with bases and bombs, the US military constructed its own massive welfare state. In the waning decades of the 20th century, with US prosperity in decline, more than 10 million active‑duty personnel and their tens of millions of family members turned to the military for economic and social security.

The military welfare state is hidden in plain sight, its welfare function camouflaged by its war-making auspices. Only the richest Americans could hope to access a more systematic welfare network. Military social welfare features a web of near-universal coverage for soldiers and their families – housing, healthcare, childcare, family counselling, legal assistance, education benefits, and more.

The programmes constitute a multi-billion-dollar-per-year safety net, at times accounting for nearly 50% of the Department of Defense budget (DoD). Their real costs spread over several divisions of the defence budget creating a system so vast that the DoD acknowledged it could not accurately reckon its total expense.

Jennifer Mittelstadt
Jennifer Mittelstadt.

Most Americans would not imagine that the military welfare state has anything to do with them. After all, in the era since the end of the draft and the advent of the all-volunteer force, military service has become the province of the few: just 0.5 per cent of Americans now serve in the armed forces.

But the history of the military welfare state tells us a great deal about citizenship and welfare. Its rise correlated with and, in some instances, caused the decline of the civilian welfare state, creating a diverging and unequal set of entitlements. And the recent transformation of the military welfare state – a massive privatisation and outsourcing -– signals an even more dangerous future for the civilian welfare state.

Read the full article at aeon.

———— End excerpt. ————


Our leaders have two goals: maintain a large and strong military (requiring a long-service corps of highly trained experts and professionals) and cut the cost of maintaining this force (to continue feeding the ever-growing hunger of military contractors with large contracts for high-tech equipment.

This collides with a citizenry having little interest in overseas adventures and decreasing interest in military service — with an increasing number of young people no longer even fit for military service. DoD has compensated for these trends during the past 35 years by increasing pay and benefits. Even so they had difficulty filling the ranks during the post-9/11 wars.

Now DoD plans to reduce compensation (broadly defined) for those serving in the armed forces — perhaps hoping that recruiting more women will offset their reduced incentives so there is no repeat of the Army’s 1990s retention problems. Perhaps they assume that our rotting education system and slowing economic growth will push increasingly desperate children from the lower middle class into uniform (as the 19th century British military filled its ranks). If not, they will find recruitment and retention increasingly challenging.

Even if successful, this means the US military’s culture will change — probably radically. If unsuccessful, even more radical changes might prove necessary. it’s another round of social experimentation with our troops as guinea pigs.

Interesting comments at Lawyers, Guns & Money about this article

“{I} learned to be a liberal in the US Army. Aside from the silly rank games, it was a liberal utopia. Nobody went hungry, universal health care without copays or coinsurance, everyone had clothing and shelter, and there was education free or nearly free right on post. We succeeded or failed as a unit and nobody got left behind. To have fellow soldier go without food would be unthinkable in the military. To have a few million children go without food is a fap dream to right wingers everywhere.”  {By Tsam.}

“You look at that and think “that’s awesome, liberalism works.” Others just learn to take it for granted and don’t even realize it’s there. Much like society as a whole doesn’t realize how much of what makes it work is the remnants of what the “socialists” built over the 20th century.

“One of my officer cousins posted a “things that people in the military know that others don’t” thing a little while ago, one of the things being “we know what it’s like to live with socialized health care,” their benefits apparently being a fate worse than death. Because I’m a nice guy and because I value peace at the inevitable family reunions, I managed not to respond “yeah. Too bad you don’t know what it’s like to have no health insurance.” …unfortunately, people who have these kinds of benefits tend to take them for granted.

“It’s no accident that the “Nixon/Reagan Democrat” demographic that swung hard from one party to the other – white Southerners and, to a lesser but still significant extent, “ethnic white” Northerners – were the same people who were the foundation of the New Deal coalition and benefited the most from the new liberal state. Live with the benefits long enough and you start to forget they were ever not-there. It’s the nasty side of the “what has the party done for me lately?” aspect of politics.”  (By CP.}

“And even with the silly rank games, the Army ethos(?) stress the egalitarian. Soldiers and officers wear the same uniforms; in the field they eat the same food and live in the same conditions. In my day young officers were trained that the soldiers ate first (when we had hot food); if there’s not enough food, the lieutenant goes hungry.

“When my wife was in grad school, we brought some of her fellow students on base and did the windshield tour. That’s the medical clinic, that’s the church, that’s the subsidized day-care center, that’s the subsidized/non-profit grocer, there’s the free gym. One asked if soldiers leaned liberal with all of this. Unfortunately, generally not; it’s invisible to most of them. And even with the silly rank games, the Army ethos(?) stress the egalitarian. Soldiers and officers wear the same uniforms; in the field they eat the same food and live in the same conditions. In my day young officers were trained that the soldiers ate first (when we had hot food); if there’s not enough food, the lieutenant goes hungry. When my wife was in grad school, we brought some of her fellow students on base and did the windshield tour. That’s the medical clinic, that’s the church, that’s the subsidized day-care center, that’s the subsidized/non-profit grocer, there’s the free gym. One asked if soldiers leaned liberal with all of this. Unfortunately, generally not; it’s invisible to most of them.” {By Wapiti.}

For More Information

Please like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter. For more information see all posts about about military recruiting, and especially these…

The American Warfare State
Available at Amazon.
From Welfare to Workfare
Available at Amazon.

11 thoughts on “DoD’s next challenge: managing the fall of our military welfare state”

  1. Very good piece Fabius!! I agree totally with your two reasons in the article, but it also has another purpose (a subtle one, one I see every day). 1) You see with on average, military families are larger than the outside. One, people get free health care, so having babies appears to be at no cost, and 2) with deployments, when the spouse returns, well, we know what happens after they have been apart for months even over a year.

    But what does this also do Fabius? It protects the status-quo!! It is brilliant, through a subtle and long-term campaign.

    Well, you have a family, particularly a large one (meaning over the reproductive need to have more than just two children), and you have to play the game. So, the establishment sets up a catch-22!! You get unbelievable benefits for your spouse and as many children that you want, for 20 plus years. So, what gets sold out first, moral courage!! I am not saying at all that everyone does this (there are a couple of friends who have larger than average families, but have incredible moral courage, but they are exceptions). It is just natural to focus on “taking care of the family” first, and leads to careerism. I think deep down the establishment knows this, why it gives everything to families and married first (though all common sense says that for an expeditionary military would be better off with single or small family dependent service members).

    Good for you to point this out, because hardly anyone sees it.

    1. Don,

      Thanks for the additional color to this, drawing on your long experience.

      What will happen as DoD slowly erodes away the troops benefits? DoD and conservatives have worked for a long time to lay the foundation for doing so. Will there be changes to the military’s culture? Will this affect the military’s ability to attract and retain our best people?

      For more about these see Do we overpay the members of our armed services?. It lists many of the studies about this.

  2. As the nation is now, it is going to degrade the quality in the near term, it is part of the current culture or this young generation to expect hand outs (though it is more earned). In the long term, it may be good, if they transition it right, but I doubt that, as the current Force of the Future (Carson’s reform proposals through Carter fall way short, see the recent article in POGO about them).

    In the spirit of creating the Army, I have worked for almost 25 years, in this link,, I would pay the Soldiers, at all ranks, just a salary, and in the spirit of Mission Command, let them deal with everything else. I would take away everything on a post that did not deal with fighting. First, it would save a ton of money in civilian hires you have to run all the services. Second, it would make Soldiers of all ranks face that raising a family in the US is not cheap, so they would have to adapt accordingly. When I was a Headquarters and Headquarters Company commander (355 soldiers a 120 families), the biggest issues I had was with married Soldiers. The worst it got with single soldiers was drinking and disorderly conduct.

    In 1991, the USMC Chase Writing Contest was won by a Marine First Sergeant (E8) who pointed out all the issues I alluded too, but proposed what I did as well (I got my ideas from him, research and my own experiences). So, the Commandant of the Marine Corps (the one after Al Gray), loved the article and attempted to implement its ideas, i.e., no married Marines before E6 and CPT (I think), as well as many others good ideas on families and benefits. The Commandants proposals were immediately attacked by the US Congress and special interests groups as being un-American, etc…so the Commandant backed off all of them. If I can find the essay, I will send it because it would warrant its own separate post, along with what happened.

    Again, in historical and scientific studies support what the Marine E8 and myself have proposed, but ignored. But I really don’t think it is because it is due to unAmerican. I think it is due to the Deep State wanting loyalty through bribery of the military. What better way to do it is through allowing your members to have larger than necessary families, so they are tied down (at least through 20 plus years, but this is all that counts because those are the ones that run the military). But our recommendations, would more than turn your Soldiers, all ranks into more independence. Cohesion is built through hard training, going through trying conditions together and winning or surviving, not living in the same community (though that helps, but it can be negative as well).

    1. Don,

      Thanks much for your comments. I agree with many of them with one exception- those caught up in the GWOT. My class will spend their entire 20 plus years at war. Do you really expect someone deploying for 6-8 years over a 20 year career to get a paycheck and just deal with it? These aren’t Roman Legionnaires who will retire on a plantation with 200 slaves. The constant disruption brought on by the mission erodes any modicum of stability. How do we care for them, or is it just supposed to be self-reliance?

      Very similar argument to NFL only paying for health care for a player for 3 years after they retire. They’re uninsurable due to mTBI and highly probable for CTE.

      Does our social contract just disregard these data points in favor of the free market?


  3. Mike, my apologies I was not clear, the pay would be a lot higher than now, it would allow them to pick the compensation that they would want. In contracting you get that choice, you take a large salary with the risks of in case of a health emergency, you will have the funds set aside to take care, or pay monthly our of your salary for health care coverage, with different levels of deductibles being covered in the HR briefing.

    1. Don,

      Your insights about the military are spot on. About health care, not so much.

      Nobody regular working person can save for health care emergencies. You can burn through hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single event.

      If you are in a high risk group and not eligible for group coverage — such as through an employer — you can become functionally ineligable for health care at any price affordable for someone not already rich. That is, the delectables and coverage limits make the insurance in effect not “insurance”, since the policy will not cover large events (I don’t know how Obamacare has changed this, since I’m not out of that field).

      Providing no insurance to combat personnel would given them zero medical coverage. No insurance company would touch active duty combat troops — in peace or war — at any cost they could pay. Once disabled, or in a high risk group (e.g., exposure to toxic chemicals) they would become ineligible for private coverage.

      Your proposal would force them to burn through their savings if very sick then go on welfare. Joining the services under those circumstances would be insane.

  4. Yeah…color me cynical regarding just salary (however high) and no more Tricare or other benefits. The 18-to-21-year-old lower-enlisted aren’t exactly renowned for their fiscal responsibility ;). If it did happen, I would swear it was a scheme concocted by the pawn shop, payday loan, and used car lot lobbies, lol.

    And thank you for this article, FM. It drives me nuts when my conservative brothers and sisters in uniform rage on about “socialism” and “liberals ruining America” with “handouts,” when they benefit from such a system. We’ll see how well they like it when they’re paying thousands a month for healthcare, child care, and education, like civilians have to.

    With our Overton window creeping ever to the right, I figured it wouldn’t be long before the ultra-conservatives started tearing down the military benefits system in favor of ever-bigger hardware contracts and more tax breaks for their 1% donor base.

  5. I’ve been watching all this for most of my adult life – here is the deal, and I don’t need some academic-elitist author to tells me wherefore and why — Agenda-driven democRat Leftists under comrade obama and others in previous administrations, have succeeded in creating the socialist-feminist military welfare state, while ALSO increasing civilian government dependency (welfare) as well, that much is OBVIOUS TO EVERYONE. And they have done it ALL FOR VOTES AND POWER and at a tremendous cost to the citizen-taxpayer. The military is a target for this because the military is a huge voting block collective controlled by Executive branch leaders that traditionally won’t vote for them unless it is eventually corrupted by them.

    The author writes, “Over the past four decades in the United States, as the country has slashed its welfare state…” RIDICULOUS! With all respect to your liberal arts degree – this article/book seems like academic-elitist drivel, skewed with “reinterpreted” facts, definitions and data. The government has been GROWING its welfare state for the last 40 years, FYI.

    1. MM,

      I don’t speak “rant”, so much of that comment make little sense. Two points, however.

      (1) The collection of benefits known as “welfare” is far smaller now per capita (or per user, or per beneficiary — however you wish to state it). Payment rates have been eroded by inflation and eligability has been tighened in several waves. The most recent was the welfare reform programs by one of those “demorat leftists” you speak about, Bill Clinton. It substantially tightened eligability.

      (2) The push to reduce pay and benefits to our troops comes almost exclusively from Republicans. The current movement originated in right-wing think tanks.

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