Rural Recruits

Rural America Supplies More Recruits to the Military

Throughout U.S. history there has been an image of the farm boy putting down a hunting rifle to join the military. Rural America just seems like a more patriotic place than the streets of the cities. But it was not until the turn of the 21st century that the data was available to document what many suspected – that rural America supplies more than its fair share of military recruits and many of them come from poor families.

Rural counties dominated a list of the top 100 counties with the highest military recruitment rates in 2004 and 2008 figures compiled by the National Priorities Project, illustrated on the map above. Their analysis looked at the Army’s recruitment rate per 1,000 people aged 18-24 in each county in the U.S. The highest rate in the nation in 2004 was from Mineral County, Montana, with three other counties from that state in the top 20. Other states in the list included Kansas with three counties, Texas with three, and Nebraska with two. Rural counties in Mississippi, Illinois, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Missouri, South Dakota, and Kentucky round out the list.

That year, more than 44 percent of military recruits came from rural areas, according to Pentagon figures. In contrast, only 14 percent came from major cities. Regionally, most enlistees come from the South (40 percent) and the West (24 percent).

In addition, more recruits were from families who had less income than the national average. Nearly half of the recruits in 2004 came from “poor” or “lower-middle-class” households, again according to Pentagon data matched to Census data on median household incomes. In 2004, the median household income for all of the U.S. was $43,052. That year, nearly two-thirds of Army recruits came from counties with lower median incomes.

Recruiting rates are volatile, especially in sparsely populated rural areas where a few enlistees plus or minus can change the rate dramatically. But in their 2008 study, NPP still showed that rural counties dominated top 100 list. Five rural counties in Georgia were in the top 20, along with three in Texas, and two in Alabama. Pope County in Illinois and Geary County in Kansas stayed in the top 20 in both years.

While there is agreement that rural recruits dominate the military, there is less consensus about the “quality” of recruits in the 21st century. The non-partisan NPP asserts that the Army has missed its quotas for recruits with high school diplomas in recent years. The Army wants 90 percent of their recruits to have a high school diploma. NPP says that in 2008, only 73.8 percent had their diploma.

But the conservative Heritage Foundation says that a higher percentage of recruits have their diplomas than the general population. They also say they have seen significant decreases in the percentages of recruits from the poorest neighborhoods from 18 percent in 1999 to 13.7 percent in 2005.

There is no debate over the impact that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had on those who survive, often with difficult wounds. In 2006, the Army reported that almost 100 soldiers or veterans had taken their own lives that year. That was almost double the number from five years before. While that rate is very low – only 17.3 per 100,000 soldiers – it’s the highest rate since the Army started counting suicides in 1980. There have also been disturbing stories of returning soldiers involved in violent crimes like murder.

Given the fact that rural America supplies a disproportionate number of military recruits, any suicide is a tragic event.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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