Youths in Rural U.S. Are Drawn To Military

Sgt. Michael Ricciardi talks with high school senior Davey Brooks, who plans to join the Army.
Sgt. Michael Ricciardi talks with high school senior Davey Brooks, who plans to join the Army. (Ann Scott Tyson - Twp)

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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 4, 2005

As sustained combat in Iraq makes it harder than ever to fill the ranks of the all-volunteer force, newly released Pentagon demographic data show that the military is leaning heavily for recruits on economically depressed, rural areas where youths' need for jobs may outweigh the risks of going to war.

More than 44 percent of U.S. military recruits come from rural areas, Pentagon figures show. In contrast, 14 percent come from major cities. Youths living in the most sparsely populated Zip codes are 22 percent more likely to join the Army, with an opposite trend in cities. Regionally, most enlistees come from the South (40 percent) and West (24 percent).

Many of today's recruits are financially strapped, with nearly half coming from lower-middle-class to poor households, according to new Pentagon data based on Zip codes and census estimates of mean household income. Nearly two-thirds of Army recruits in 2004 came from counties in which median household income is below the U.S. median.

Such patterns are pronounced in such counties as Martinsville, Va., that supply the greatest number of enlistees in proportion to their youth populations. All of the Army's top 20 counties for recruiting had lower-than-national median incomes, 12 had higher poverty rates, and 16 were non-metropolitan, according to the National Priorities Project, a nonpartisan research group that analyzed 2004 recruiting data by Zip code.

"A lot of the high recruitment rates are in areas where there is not as much economic opportunity for young people," said Anita Dancs, research director for the NPP, based in Northampton, Mass.

Senior Pentagon officials say the war has had a clear impact on recruiting, with a shrinking pool of candidates forcing the military to accept less qualified enlistees -- and presumably many for whom military service is a choice of last resort. In fiscal 2005, the Army took in its least qualified group of recruits in a decade, as measured by educational level and test results. The war is also attracting youths driven by patriotism, including a growing fringe of the upper class and wealthy, but military sociologists believe that greater numbers of young people who would have joined for economic reasons are being discouraged by the prolonged combat.

The Pentagon Zip code data, applied for the first time to 2004 recruiting results, underscores patterns already suggested by anecdotal evidence, such as analysis of the home towns of troops killed in Iraq. Although still an approximation, the data offer a more detailed portrait of the socioeconomic status of the Americans most likely to serve today.

Tucked into the Piedmont foothills of southern Virginia, where jobs in the local economy are scarce as NASCAR fans are plentiful, Martinsville is typical of the lower-income rural communities across the nation that today constitute the U.S. military's richest recruiting grounds.

Albert Deal, 25, had struggled for years to hold onto a job in this rural Virginia community of rolling hills and shuttered textile mills. So when the lanky high school graduate got his latest pink slip, from a modular-homes plant, he took a hard look at his life. Then he picked up the phone and dialed the steadiest employer he knew: the U.S. Army.

Two weeks later, on Oct. 27, Deal sat in his parents' living room and signed one enlistment document after another as his fiancee, Kimbery Easter, somberly looked on.

"This is the police check," said Sgt 1st Class Christopher A. Barber, a veteran Army recruiter, leading Deal through the stack of paperwork. "This is the sex-offender check . . ." Barber spoke in a monotone, sounding like a tour guide who had memorized every word.

Left adrift, young people such as Deal "are being pushed out of their communities. They want to get away from intolerable situations, and the military offers them something different," said Morten G. Ender, a sociologist at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.


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