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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Misleading on Military Pay

Q: Did Obama propose a 1.4 percent pay increase for the military, the lowest since 1973?

A: Yes. Military pay raises are based on the Employment Cost Index, which grew very little this year.


This is going around as a post on Facebook — any truth to it?

"President Obama has proposed a 1.4% pay increase for active duty military in 2011. This is THE LOWEST SINCE 1973! Nice to know that during a time of rampant inflation, while war is fought in 2 theatres, our men and women in uniform get A LOWER PAY INCREASE THAN WELFARE RECIPIENTS. Please repost if you support our troops."


Unlike some fast-spreading Internet rumors, this one has a grain of truth, but it misrepresents some facts and fabricates others.

First, it is true that Obama proposed a 1.4 percent base pay raise for members of the military in his budget for fiscal year 2011. Civilian federal employees would get the same 1.4 percent. That wouldn’t take effect until January 2011 — for 2010, the military is getting a 3.4 percent raise and federal employees are getting 2 percent.

It’s also true that this will be the lowest raise the military has had since it became an all-volunteer force in 1973 — including Obama’s last proposed pay raise, which was much higher at 2.9 percent (Congress bumped it up to 3.4). But that number is not pulled from thin air, or even calculated based on how much is available in the budget. U.S. Code dictates a rather complex equation for military pay raises, based on the Employment Cost Index, a measure compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to track the costs of labor for businesses. Military pay increases by "the percentage (rounded to the nearest one-tenth of one percent) by which the ECI for the base quarter of the year before the preceding year exceeds the ECI for the base quarter of the second year before the preceding calendar year (if at all)." Specifically, the code states, that’s the ECI for wages and salaries of private industry workers.

If that’s confusing, here’s the short version: When the ECI goes up, so does military pay, so that military salaries don’t fall behind civilian ones. So because the ECI increased 1.4 percent in 2009, that’s the proposed military pay raise in 2010. The raise is unusually low, but that’s because the ECI increase was unprecedentedly small — the smallest percent change since the series began in 1975, according to BLS.

Obama is empowered to suggest a lower or higher pay raise, which would have to be ratified by Congress, in extenuating circumstances like an economic crisis. Congress can also vote to change his proposed increase, as they did for fiscal year 2010. For the new budget, the House Armed Services Committee did suggest boosting the 1.4 percent raise. But defense personnel officials resisted, saying that they would rather that money be used for other programs that benefit military families. After an 11-year string of increases that slightly exceeded average private sector annual raises, Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick said that "we actually think we have a surplus in terms of pay." The Department of Defense has announced increases in military housing allowances, family support programs, and child care and tuition assistance for military families in this year’s budget request, many of which outpace the base pay increase.

This rumor reminds us of a similar one, about the Social Security cost of living adjustment. There’s no COLA this year, but rumors attributing that to greedy members of Congress are just bunk. The COLA, like military pay raises, is calculated based on economic measures — in this case, the Consumer Price Index. In a tough economy both will be lower than usual, but that’s because of the formulas used to determine them, not the will of the administration.

As for the "pay increase" for "welfare recipients," that’s a fabrication. First of all, "welfare recipients" refers to beneficiaries of a number of different programs. Many of those, like Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, are state-administered, meaning that states decide how to allocate the funds they’re allotted. There is no single federally mandated annual pay increase for people receiving government assistance.

– Jess Henig


Ballenstedt, Brittany R. "Obama backs 2 percent civilian pay raise, 2.9 percent for military." Government Executive. 26 Feb. 2009.

"2010 Military Pay Charts." Military.com. Accessed 22 Mar. 2010.

Berry, John. "January 2010 Pay Adjustments." Press release. United States Office of Personnel Management.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employment Cost Index – December 2009." 29 Jan. 2010.

"Adjustments of monthly basic pay." 37 USC 1009.

Miles, Donna. "Pay, Medical, Family Issues Highlight Budget Request." Press release. American Forces Press Service. 26 Jan. 2010.

Maze, Rick. "Officials: Fund programs, not bigger raise." Army Times. 19 Mar. 2010.