Rural Veterans: An Aging Population

Nearly 4 million rural Americans are military veterans. That population is aging and has special needs, according to a report from the Economic Research Service of USDA.

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As the nation pauses to honor our veterans this Memorial Day, the Economic Research Service at the Department of Agriculture is calling attention to some of the special characteristics of the nearly 4 million veterans who live in nonmetropolitan America.

 “Today, as in years past, a disproportionate share of men and women serving in the military grew up in rural counties and most return home after completing tours of duty,” write Tracey Farrigan and John Cromartie in their report, “Rural Veterans at a Glance.” “Thus, rural Americans are disproportionately represented in the veteran population.”

Rural veterans make up 19% of all veterans in the U.S., compared with just 16% of the general population.

But the number of rural veterans is declining. The number of rural veterans dropped from 6.6 million in 1992 to 3.9 million in 2011. Part of that is due to reclassification of counties from nonmetro to metro, which lowers the overall nonmetro population. Another factor is the decreasing size of the military since 1990 (fewer military personnel means fewer veterans down the line).

But the biggest demographic characteristic of the rural veteran population is how quickly that population is aging. That’s what the chart above shows. The red bars show the age distribution of rural veterans. Notice that about half of rural veterans are aged 65 and up.

The chart also shows how the proportion of rural veterans rises dramatically as the population gets older. Only about 3% of rural young adults are veterans. For rural residents aged 65 and up, 25% are.

The second chart expresses some of this same information in a slightly different way. The blue line shows the number of rural veterans. The scale is in millions and is located on the left side of the graph. The number declines over the years.

The red line shows the percentage of rural veterans who are 65 and older (the scale is on the right side of the graph). That line increases steadily until it reaches about half the rural veteran population in 2011.

The aging of the rural veteran population creates challenges for veterans’ services and other social-service and health-service organizations. That’s doubly true because another wave of younger veterans is returning home after the end of the Iraq War and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan. Many of these younger veterans have special needs.

(Recent reports that Veterans Affairs agencies have falsified records to disguise unacceptably long wait times underscore this problem.)  

The ERS report notes that “20% of rural, working-age veterans report disability status compared with 11 percent of nonveterans.”

 

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