The fallout from covid-19 is a big part of the problem. Lockdowns reduced eligibility by degrading academic performance and contributing to higher levels of obesity and mental illness. They also sharply limited face-to-face recruiting, most importantly in schools. Katherine Kuzminski, an expert on the armed forces and society at CNAS, a think-tank in Washington, says that men who finished school online, and thus spent less time with peers, are proving more likely to delay big life decisions, including going to college or joining up. Brian McGovern, deputy director of public affairs at the army’s recruiting command at Fort Knox, Kentucky, says that a growing “disconnect from society”, caused by the pandemic, has hampered recruitment: the proportion of eligible Americans who meet enlistment requirements has fallen from 29% in recent years to just 23%.
Although the drop is notable, those figures underline the fact that, even before the pandemic, only a small share of ostensibly eligible Americans met the army’s criteria. Recruits must be physically fit, pass a science, maths and language test, and be deemed “in good moral standing”, meaning that they have not committed a felony and do not have a serious problem with drugs or alcohol. In some cases those rules have not adapted to changes in the law. Marijuana, for example, is now illegal in all circumstances in just four states, by one reckoning. But the army still considers marijuana use a disqualifier (though people who have quit can request a waiver).
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