We've known for at least seven years that rural residents are overrepresented in the military. But why does the White House issue a report and statements that vastly overstate this phenomenon?
The White House is claiming that rural America, with 17% of the population, provides 44% of those serving in the military.
The assertion appears twice in a report issued by the White House Rural Council late last week. During a conference call with reporters on Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack quoted the 17% and 44% figures as a “little known fact.” And a press release Monday from the White House itself makes the same claim.
It is little known, perhaps, because there appears to be no way it could possibly be true.
We have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture repeatedly for some proof of the assertion that appears in the report titled “Jobs and Economic Security for Rural America.” In two places, the White House report states:
“Although rural residents account for 17% of the population, they make up 44% of the men and women who serve in uniform.”
So far, the USDA has not produced any evidence that this is the ratio of rural residents in the military.
The Daily Yonder has been writing about the over-representation of rural residents in the military since we began publication more than four years ago. (In fact, Yonder co-editor Bill Bishop wrote the first article about the overrepresentation of rural residents in Iraq in 2003 for the newspaper in Austin, Texas, and later for the New York Times.) We have used several sets of data to measure the percentage of military personnel who hail from rural communities.
Each time we’ve done this research we’ve found a disproportionate share of rural residents in the services. Simply, there are more rural residents in the military than the size of the rural population would predict.
Normally, we’ve found that enlistment from rural communities is 20% to 30% above the national average. The White House and Vilsack, however, are saying that rural residents are enlisting at rates nearly three times the national average.
When the Yonder asked the USDA for the source of its data, spokesman Justin Delong sent a 2005 clipping from The Washington Post. In that story, reporter Ann Scott Tyson cites data from the National Priorities Project saying that “more than 44 percent of U.S. military recruits come from rural areas….”
Rural is not defined in the story, however, so there is no way to know what this figure means or if this group of recruits came from the 17% of the population Vilsack and the White House defined as rural.
The Post story does not say rural areas are over-represented in the military. In fact, that calculation can’t be done with the information the Post provides.
Delong did not answer emails asking for clarification.
The White House appears to have plucked one number from the Washington Post (the 44% figure) and compared that to the 17% of the population considered rural by the U.S. Census. The numbers, however, have no obvious relationship.
The Yonder used the same National Priorities Project data on 2008 Army recruits in a story we published in March 2009. According to our calculations, about 20% of recruits came from rural communities that were home to 16% of draft age residents.
So, yes, rural residents were joining the Army at rates 21.5% above the national average. That’s significant.
But the percentage of rural residents in the military is still much less than half of what Vilsack and the White House and the White House Rural Council assert.
The truth of the matter is stark enough. Rural communities are providing far more of their young to military service than the cities. Just yesterday, the Yonder reported that 30% of those who died on the Chinook helicopter shot down over Afghanistan came from rural communities.
Meanwhile, President Obama is in the middle of a trip to the rural Midwest, where he is promoting the White House Rural Council’s report.
Vilsack was quoted Monday morning in the Des Moines Register again saying, “Not only do we have food security because of the extraordinary productivity of our farmers, but we also have military security. Rural America represents 17 percent of the country’s population, but 44 percent of America’s military.”
And then in a press release out of the White House Monday saying President Obama was having lunch with some vets in Cannon Mills, Minnesota, we read: “Although rural residents account for 17% of the U.S. population, they make up 44% of the men and women who serve in uniform.”
We await a full explanation from the White House and the USDA. If it comes, you’ll be the first to know. In the meantime, however, it doesn’t sound any better no matter how many times they say it.