Caitlin Johnstone Economy Military

Caitlin Johnstone: America’s Perverse Poverty Draft

Some lawmakers worry partial cancellation of student debts will harm military recruitment and they’ve written to the president and defense secretary about it.
U.S. Rep. Don Bacon speaking at  groundbreaking for a new Veteran Affairs facility in Omaha, Aug. 7, 2019. (U.S. Air Force/Charles J. Haymond)

By Caitlin Johnstone / CaitlinJohnstone.com

Nineteen members of the U.S. House of Representatives have written a letter [pdf] to President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin cautioning that the partial cancellation of student debts can have the unintended consequence of reducing military recruitment in the United States.

The letter reads as follows:

“Dear President Biden,

We write to you to share our concerns about the unintended consequences of your decision to cancel up to $20,000 of student loan debt per borrower. We are particularly concerned about the negative impact this will surely have on our nation’s military and their ability to recruit and retain top talent.

As you know, some of the most successful recruiting incentives for the military are the GI Bill and student loan forgiveness programs. The idea that the military will pay for schooling during or after completion of a service obligation is a driving factor in many individuals’ decision to join one of the services. A recent estimate showed that as many as 178,000 servicemembers [sic] were eligible for some type of forgiveness.

By forgiving such a wide swath of loans for borrowers, you are removing any leverage the Department of Defense maintained as one of the fastest and easiest ways to pay for higher education. We recognize the loan forgiveness programs have issues of their own, but this remains a top recruiting incentive.

Currently, a mere 23 percent of the population is eligible to serve in the military. Even fewer of those have a propensity to serve. At the end of last month, the Army had only reached 66 percent of its recruiting goal for the year. The Navy, only 89 percent. It is no secret that each of the services continues to battle hardships in recruiting and now these problems will be exacerbated by removing the uniqueness of this benefit.

As the services try to adopt unique approaches to tackle their recruiting challenges, including historic bonuses, it feels like their legs are being cut out from underneath them. With this in mind, we ask for you to provide us answers to the following questions:

  1. Was the effect on military service considered in the development of the recent student loan forgiveness decision?
  2. What is the administration’s plan to develop incentives to augment the loss of those who might join the military to help pay off student loans?
  3. What improvements are being made to ensure timely payments to those currently enrolled in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness programs for both active duty and reserve components?

Thank you for your attention to this matter.”

So, they’re just coming right out and admitting it. One of the reasons the U.S. government doesn’t offer the same kinds of social support systems that people have in all other wealthy nations is because otherwise there’d be no economic pressure on young Americans to sign up for service in the U.S. war machine.

This is no secret, but it’s generally considered taboo for government officials to actually say so. People have been talking about the poverty draft for many years — about the established fact that a majority of U.S. military recruits come from neighborhoods with below median income levels and that those neighborhoods are targeted for recruitment because impoverished communities often see military service as their only chance at upward mobility.

But the term “poverty draft” can create a bit of confusion, because when most Americans hear “poverty” they think homeless people and those who can barely afford to eat or keep a roof over their heads. In reality the U.S. is a nation where a majority of the population would be unable to pay for a $1,000 emergency expense from their savings, and the level at which economic pressure is felt to join the military is much higher than the very poorest of the poor.

Those economic pressures are why U.S. Army officials have explicitly said that the student loan crisis is to thank for their success in meeting recruitment goals.

So the U.S. empire has a huge incentive to maintain a very large population of Americans who are economically uncomfortable, and this plays a significant role in the domestic policymaking decisions of that nation’s government.

The U.S. empire is held together by constant violence and the threat thereof, and its ability to apply that violence would be crippled without a steady supply of warm teenage bodies to feed into its war machine. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the U.S. empire would collapse without the economic pressures which coerce teens to sign up to kill and be killed over things like oil reserves and Raytheon profit margins.

It’s one of those things that looks more ghoulish the more you think about it.

In the wealthiest nation in the world, economic justice is actively suppressed in part to ensure that young Americans will feel financially squeezed into killing foreigners who are far more impoverished than they are. They are keeping people poor so that they will commit mass murder.

It’s actually hard to think of anything more depraved than that.

But such is the nature of the capitalist empire. You’re either a useful gear-turner of the machine or you are liquidated and turned into fuel for its engine.

If you’re not a successful capitalist, you can be used to defend the empire with pricey weaponry. If you’re not helping the empire, you can be used to drive up profits for the military-industrial complex as a target for war machinery whose costly munitions will need to be replaced.

If you’re not a good gear-turner you can be sent to become a prison slave or incarcerated in a private for-profit prison. There’s a use for everyone in the empire.

The globe-spanning power structure that is centralized around the United States is the most evil, soulless and destructive force on this planet. The young people who are duped, manipulated and financially coerced into joining its war machine come back horrifically traumatized by the experiences they have in the situations they are placed in.

Something better is needed. This cannot continue.

Caitlin Johnstone
Caitlin Johnstone

Caitlin Johnstone’s work is entirely reader-supported, so if you enjoyed this piece please consider sharing it around, following her on FacebookTwitterSoundcloud or YouTube, or throwing some money into her tip jar on Ko-fiPatreon or Paypal. If you want to read more you can buy her books. The best way to make sure you see the stuff she publishes is to subscribe to the mailing list at her website or on Substack, which will get you an email notification for everything she publishes.  For more info on who she is, where she stands and what she’s trying to do with her platform, click here. All works are co-authored with her American husband Tim Foley.

10 comments

  1. Just another reason why American “culture” shouldn’t really be considered “civilized.” Beyond the various forms of indentured servitude perpetrated onto its citizenry — in this case of the cannon-fodder variety — add the drive of Capitalist lust for everything profitable. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Right whales, only one of the three species having a reasonable population number, the other two drifting toward extinction. Can any culture that destroys such magnificent creatures really be called “civilized.”

  2. You are absolutely right! The propaganda in this country for the military is disgusting. They pair it with sports to entice young men. They play the national anthem before every sporting event. They constantly force patriotism down our throats and anyone whose has served in the military is a hero. It sickens me. Our government is the Evil Empire and is shames me to be an American.

  3. We have millions of Americans in poverty, with little or no incomes. I don’t think our more fortunate grasp how hellish and life-threatening today’s US poverty is. But the fact is, people are desperate for any job at any wage, and if they’re still healthy enough, would be of use to the military. The military provides a means of survival – food, shelter, medical care – and at least a chance at higher ed/legit job skills training. (Not that there’d be anything left if Biden launches nuclear world war.) The very poor should maintain the first shot at getting into the military. Those who signed for massive loans can be fed into the war machine second.

  4. A question for Johnstone: How could it be possible for foreigners to be “far more impoverished” than America’s poor? More abundant garbage for the US homeless poor to go through, in search of food scraps or anything usable? America’s poor today are entirely at the mercy of the streets, and that’s a place where there is no mercy.

  5. Now is not the right time to join the military for any reason including poverty.

    Too bad so many young men and women don’t realize it.

    They join in the hope of making something better for themselves, but I fear it will only bring them death.

    We stand on the brink of the abyss.

  6. “It is no secret that each of the services continues to battle hardships in recruiting and now these problems will be exacerbated by removing the uniqueness of this benefit.”

    Good.

    “So the U.S. empire has a huge incentive to maintain a very large population of Americans who are economically uncomfortable . . .”

    Well, duh. It’s been going on for centuries. Before it went on here, it was going on in Europe for about eight hundred years. It’s groundhog day everyday in the USA when it comes to understanding wealth disparity and how this society replicates inequality century after century, and it is really, really good at doing it. No one has ever put a stop to it, either. Not even when they ran away and came here and killed all the Indians and stole all their land. Notice that those colonists/invaders didn’t really try to put a stop to the brutal, murderous inequality they were fleeing. They just replaced the people they hated with themselves, and started the whole shitshow over again. On stolen land and on top of the corpses of millions of Native Americans from sea to shining sea.

    We destroy everything we touch.

  7. While the fact that all signatories of the letter to Biden are GOP bigots does not ‘jive’ well with the abstracted and gentrified left-ish, Neo Progressive politicized narrative that systematically ignores the most important distinctive feature of American political landscape, as well as global contemporary democratic hurdles, namely the growing conservative-liberal chasm in which the right has been in fascism territory for several decades now, there are two important aspects which are completely lost because of it. The Student Debt forgiveness – a prime example of the liberal efforts to combat the growing inequality – is completely ignored as such despite the fact that the conservative letter loses most of its meaning without it. More important, by ignoring the liberal-conservative divide left-ish, Neo Progressive pundits and flock ignore the most obvious, immediate, effective, and, most important of all, the only democratic resolution to the GOP growing bigotry and atrocious samples like the ones exposed by that letter – namely to boot them out of office.

  8. While the fact that all signatories of the letter to Biden are GOP bigots does not ‘jive’ well with the abstracted and gentrified left-ish, Neo Progressive politicized narrative that systematically ignores the most important distinctive feature of American political landscape, as well as global contemporary democratic hurdles, namely the growing conservative-liberal chasm in which the right has been in fascism territory for several decades now, there are two important aspects which are completely lost because of it. The Student Debt forgiveness – a prime example of the liberal efforts to combat the growing inequality – is completely ignored as such despite the fact that the conservative letter loses most of its meaning without it. More important, by ignoring the liberal-conservative divide left-ish, Neo Progressive pundits and flock ignore the most obvious, immediate, effective, and, most important of all, the only democratic resolution to the GOP growing bigotry and atrocious samples like the ones exposed by that letter – namely to boot them out of office.

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