by Rolando Zenteno / Facing South - Since the U.S. ended the draft in 1973, young adults from Southern states* have been overrepresented among new military recruits. In fact, the region has been in a league of its own in terms of military recruitment since the late 20th century, with no other region experiencing as wide a disparity in military representation.
The disproportionate presence of new military recruits from the South can be understood by looking at the region's "representation ratio": its share of new recruits divided by its share of the U.S. young adult population. A ratio of 1 means a state's share of new recruits is equal to its share of the U.S. young adult population between the ages of 18 and 24, the typical age range for new enlistees. A ratio of less than 1 means a state is providing fewer recruits than might be expected given its young adult population, while a ratio of more than 1 means it's providing more than its fair share.
The South's ratio has barely budged since the 1990s.
According to fiscal year 2017 data, the most recent available, the South's share of the U.S. young adult population was 33 percent, but it provided 41 percent of new military enlistees nationwide. As a result, the region's representation ratio is 1.2, which means it provided 20 percent more military recruits than might be expected given its young adult population.
It's a very different story for South Carolina, whose contribution of new military recruits outweighs its share of the U.S. young adult population by more than 50 percent. Only four Southern states have a representation ratio of less than 1: Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky and West Virginia. Florida's and Georgia's contribution of military recruits exceeds their share of the young adult population by 30 percent, putting them among the five states most overrepresented among new recruits.
Explaining the disparities
There have been efforts to understand why the South is so disproportionately represented among U.S. military recruits.
A 2018 study by the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), which provides the U.S. government with research, looked at variables that could help predict how much of a state's young adult population would enlist in the military. Among the variables it analyzed was how a census region's young adult unemployment rate would affect its military enlistments. But for the South, the unemployment rate had the least impact on military recruitment numbers among all of the regions.
The IDA found a factor with a strong impact on military recruitment: the concentration of veterans in a given area. Per the study, veteran presence can translate to a parent, mentor, or coach who served influencing a young adult's choice to enlist.
Adjusting for several variables, the study found that about an 8 percentage point increase in an area's veteran population in the 35 to 54 age range could boost enlistments from about five recruits per 1,000 young adults to about six.
And then there is the influence of active duty military members. More than a third of them live in an area of the South stretching from Florida through Georgia and the Carolinas to Virginia.
The military itself acknowledges that proximity and personal ties to service members can influence enlistment decisions.
"We know that the larger presence of military bases in the South and having a family member who's served are both factors contributing to a person's decision to serve," Lisa Ferguson, media relations chief at the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, told Facing South in an email. "We also know that 79 percent of recruits have a relative who's served, which points back to a familiarity with the lifestyle and a higher propensity to consider the military for a career."
Such was the case for Eric Padró of Clarksville,Tennessee, who joined the Air Force after college. Facing South interviewed him via Facebook.
"My influence to join was my family's history of military service," wrote Padró, whose brother, father, and both grandfathers served in the military. "I knew I wanted to join the Air Force around sophomore year of high school."
A family affair
The military's concentrated presence in the South is driving recruitment — often from the same families.
Data from the Joint Advertising Marketing Research and Studies, which is responsible for Department of Defense recruitment research, shows the military is consistently looking inward for recruitment. The percent of new recruits who say they have a family member who served in the military has hovered above 75 percent since 2012.
In the Army, the military's largest branch, more and more new recruits are coming "from the same small number of counties and are the children of old recruits," as the New York Times recently reported. Many of the counties rich in Army recruits are in the South, stretching across large swaths of Florida, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.
"A strong predictor of whether you will join the military is whether your friends and family are joining the military," Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University, who served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, told Facing South in an email. "The large military communities in the South thus contribute to and reinforce this pattern of over-representation."
* Facing South counts the following states as part of the region: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia
Rolando Zenteno is the inaugural recipient of the Julian Bond Fellowship with Facing South.