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The Growing Rural Isolation of Veterans

The Growing Rural Isolation of Veterans
Reuters

America’s population of veterans has been shrinking for years. This means – as Pentagon leaders have begun to lament – that civilians have less contact today with the realities of military life (and afterlife for veterans) than at any point in memory. On this Veterans’ Day, you’re much less likely to know a vet than you would have been 30 years ago.

If you live in a city, your odds are even worse. Some new research about to be published in the journal Armed Forces & Society concludes that veterans haven’t just been disappearing as a share of the population; those who remain have also been segregating into a smaller and smaller slice of rural America, often near military installations in states like Florida, Texas and Alabama.

Jay Teachman, a sociologist at Western Washington University, looked at county-level census data from 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010, covering the period of time when the military had transitioned to an all-volunteer force. In 1980, there were more than 28 million vets in America (and more than 2 million soldiers on active duty). By 2010, that number had fallen to 22 million (with 1.4 million on active duty). Over the same time span, the country’s population swelled by some 80 million people. This means the share of veterans among us dropped from 12 percent in 1980 to around 7 percent in the most recent census.

Little research has been done until now looking at just how these vets are geographically distributed across the country. Now, based on Teachman’s analysis, it appears they’ve been increasingly concentrating in smaller rural counties – the same areas from which we know most military recruits are drawn.

Segregation is often measured by academics with an “index of dissimilarity” that reflects how evenly distributed different demographic groups are across a given geographic area. The higher the number, the more segregated a community. Since 1980, America’s dissimilarity index with respect to veterans has more than doubled, from .064 to .144. Looked at another way: in 1980, 80 percent of all counties contained more than 10 percent veterans. That number fell to 73 percent in 1990, 55 percent in 2000, and 26 percent in 2010.

Teachman doesn’t spell out the implications of these numbers, but former Defense Secretary Robert Gates did in a disquieting speech two years ago warning of a growing divide between America's military and civilian worlds. “In the absence of a draft,” Gates said then, “for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.”

Teachman's maps also suggest that service in the military has increasingly become something for rural Americans to do.

Top image: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

All maps courtesy Jay Teachman, from "A Note of Disappearing Veterans: 1980-2010," in Armed Forces & Society.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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