Recent Focused Series »

Indo-European Origins
Northern California
The Caucasus
Imaginary Geography
Home » Cultural Geography, Economic Geography, North America

Who Serves in the U.S. Military? Mapping Enlisted Troops and Officers

Submitted by on July 3, 2013 – 9:07 am 52 Comments |  
Conventional wisdom holds that military service disproportionately attracts men and women from disadvantaged backgrounds, many of whom are members of minority groups. Many people believe that troops enlist primarily because they have few options, not because they want to serve their country. Others believe that the war in Iraq has forced the military to lower its recruiting standards. A report from Heritage Foundation published in 2008 shows this conventional wisdom is far from the truth. This study compared military volunteers to the civilian population on four demographic characteristics: household income, education level, racial and ethnic background, and regional origin. As a result, we now know who serves in the active-duty ranks of the U.S. all-volunteer military.


According to the report (p. 13), “both active-duty enlisted troops and officers come disproportionately from high income neighborhoods—a trend that has increased since 9/11”. As can be seen from the chart on the left, only 11% of enlisted recruits in 2007 came from the poorest 1/5 (quintile) of neighborhoods, while 25% came from the wealthiest quintile. These trends are even more pronounced in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, in which 40 percent of enrollees come from the wealthiest neighborhoods. Also contrary to popular perceptions, U.S. military enlisted troops are not poorly educated. In fact, American soldiers are significantly more likely to have a high school diploma than their civilian peers: only 1.4% of enlisted recruits in 2007 had not graduated from high school or completed a high school equivalency degree, compared to 20.8% of the general male population in the age range between 18 and 24. Moreover, 95% of officer accessions have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Likewise, the conventional wisdom that minorities are overrepresented in the military is not supported by the facts. No clear racial imbalance is evident in regard to enlisted personnel. Among the officer corps, Caucasians are proportionately represented and African-Americans are overrepresented. American Indian and Alaskan natives are the most overrepresented group among new recruits. Asians and Pacific Islanders are slightly underrepresented. Hispanics are also underrepresented, with the troop-to-population ratio of 0.65 in 2007.


The regional origin of new recruits is more unbalanced, as the South is disproportionally represented, a tendency that remains “in line with the history of Southern military tradition” (p. 2). The southeastern states account for more than 40% of new enlistees. As can be seen from the map reproduced on the left, the Northeast is greatly underrepresented in regard to the enlisted population. The Midwest and the Pacific West regions are slightly underrepresented, while the Mountain West region is somewhat overrepresented. The regional distribution of newly commissioned officers is similar. Here again the South accounts for more than its fair share (42.5%) of new Army ROTC commissioned officers in 2006—almost 10% above the region’s proportional share. West Point cadets from the South account for 36.7% of all 2007 graduates, a disproportionally high figure. The Northeast in underrepresented among ROTC cadets, but the representation of this region in regard to U.S. military academy (USMA) graduates is proportional. The West is underrepresented in both ROTC and USMA. The Midwest is proportionally underrepresented among West Point graduates.


While regional figures suggest parallelism between enlistment rates and voting patterns—with “red states” considered more “militaristic” than “blue states”—a closer look at state-by-state level shows that the picture is more complex. In general, Democratic-voting states are underrepresented, and Republic-voting states are overrepresented (see map of the 2012 Presidential elections at the bottom of this post for comparison), but exceptions to this pattern are instructive as well. When it comes to enlisted personnel, several “blue states”—Maine, Oregon, and Hawaii—are overrepresented. (The same is true of several “purple” states, especially Florida and Nevada.) On the other hand, several “red states” are underrepresented, particularly North Dakota and Utah. The low proportion of enlisted troops from Utah is perhaps best explained by its heavily Mormon leaning, as most Mormons of military age engage in missionary activities. A number of “red states” are slightly underrepresented, including South Dakota, Nebraska, Indiana, Mississippi, and Louisiana.


In regard to the officer corps, the patterns are somewhat different, and ratios differ for new Army ROTC commissioned officers and West Point graduates. As with enlisted soldiers, a slight correlation between voting patterns and Army service exists, but exceptions stand out as well. ROTC enrollees tend to come from “red states”, but some “blue states” are overrepresented, including New Hampshire, Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Hawaii (the latter is, in fact, overrepresented in all three categories of new military personnel). In contrast, three “red states” are underrepresented among ROTC enrollees: Arizona, Nebraska, and North Dakota.


As for West Point graduates, five generally Democrat-voting states—New Mexico, Hawaii, Oregon, Delaware, and Maine—are overrepresented, and six Republican-voting states are underrepresented: Louisiana, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, North Dakota, and Wyoming.

Interestingly, Hawaii is overrepresented in all three categories of Army personnel: enlisted troops, ROTC enrollees, and U.S. Military Academy graduates. Hawaii’s significant contribution to the U.S. military personnel is particularly interesting in light of the fact that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are underrepresented in the military, as mentioned above. Similarly, North Dakota is underrepresented in all three categories.


Previous Post
Next Post

Subscribe For Updates

It would be a pleasure to have you back on GeoCurrents in the future. You can sign up for email updates or follow our RSS Feed, Facebook, or Twitter for notifications of each new post:

Commenting Guidelines: GeoCurrents is a forum for the respectful exchange of ideas, and loaded political commentary can detract from that. We ask that you as a reader keep this in mind when sharing your thoughts in the comments below.

  • Sebastian Pado

    It might be interesting to note that many European countries have reciprocity agreements regarding acceptance of driving licenses not with the US as a whole but with individual states. It seems that the existence of these agreements is determined at least in part by the provenance of U.S. army personnel stationed in Europe. For example, see the list for Germany on page 5 inßerhalb-eu-und-ewr-staaten.pdf

    California and New York are notably absent while small states like New Mexico or Nebraska are present. It’s not a perfect correlation — Alaska and Montana are missing — but I find it interesting nevertheless.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      This is an interesting issue, and I’ve not thought of it before. Thanks for pointing it out, Sebastian! A quick look at the list in the document you linked to does not reveal a perfect correlation though, as some of the underrepresented states are listed, and some overrepresented states (Oregon, Montana) are not listed. But it’s an interesting correlation nonetheless, I agree.

      • Clint

        Check the National Guard’s State Partnership program which types a state to a particular country for military support. That might explain some of the correlation for some state’s licenses being excepted in Europe.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          I am not sure I follow…

  • Eligamer

    I wonder how that holds up against the recruitment budgets for each state and localities.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Another interesting issue I’ve not looked into. Thanks!

      • Eligamer

        When I enlisted into the Air Force from New York City in the early 80s I was told that there was an 10 month waiting list for a certain field. In basic training a couple of flight mates who had lower ASVAB scores than me both overall and field specific were able to be enlisted almost immediately in that field. One was from Alaska and the other I think was from a mid-western state. I was directed to another less technical field. This made me think that there were quotas either for race or region. In those days it also seemed that Filipinos were over-represented. But that was simply by the eyeball test.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          That’s an interesting question. Thank you for sharing your story. Makes me wonder how things have changed since the 1980s… Unfortunately, the report does not go below the generally racial categories like “Asians and Pacific Islanders”, so I can’t say if the Filipinos are indeed overrepresented.

  • Peter Rosa

    There is a very large military presence in Hawaii, so it’s not too surprising that many state residents join the military. It wouldn’t surprise me if many of the enlistees are from the families of service members.
    My first guess as to the reason for North Dakota’s low enrollment was the fact that the state’s full of high paying jobs, but the Heritage report pre-dates the full development of the Bakken Field, so that can’t be the case.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Interesting point about North Dakota, but like you say the report I cited predates the full development of the Bakken Field. Moreover, an older report (see link below) has North Dakota underrepresented in 2004 and 2005 as well, so this seems to be a long-term situation rather than a more recent fluke.

      And great point about Hawaii—but wouldn’t the same principle (more enlistees from military families) apply elsewhere? So it’s a tradition that perpetuates itself. The report’s authors actually say as much…

      • Greg Weatherup

        But also making Hawai’i more pronounced in overrepresentation in these stats (in relation to the question you raised about that trend Peter mentioned not beeing seen in other states with many military families) I supect is that in Hawai’i Military Expenditures account for a very significant portion of the states economy (especially since the collapse of the sugar industry) leading many from even non-military families to have the military prescence more “on the mind’s radar” so to speak when youngsters are considering employment prospects, at least more so than in areas without a prominent military prescence.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          That’s an excellent point, thanks, Greg!

  • Evan (PolGeoNow)

    Doesn’t overrepresentation of African-Americans, American Indians, and Alaska Natives support the conventional wisdom about minorities being overrepresented? It seems like you’re saying the opposite here.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Good point. What I was trying to say is that not ALL minority groups are overrepresented—in fact, Hispanics are underrepresented.

      • Evan (PolGeoNow)

        Ah, I see. That is an interesting detail!

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          The devil is always in the details. I wish we actually had more details on this issue, but one has to do with what ones has…

    • (:

      According to this article, African-Americans are only overrepresented on the commissioned side, not enlisted.

  • Evan (PolGeoNow)

    Also, let’s not forget that the lack of a correlation with “red states” and “blue states” doesn’t rule out a correlation between political leaning and likelihood to join the military. Most “blue states” still have large Republican-voting populations (nearly 50% in many cases), and those populations could be relatively more or less galvanized to join the military for various reasons.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      That’s an excellent point, Evan! Unfortunately, we don’t have the data needed to address this, but you may very well be right…

      • Evan (PolGeoNow)

        Right, we can’t know either way without data. But since you and I both know maps can conceal as well as reveal the truth, this seemed like a good thing to point out.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Yes, thanks for pointing it out… If we had data by county, we could have been a bit more precise… Ah well…

  • Stacy123456

    Asaya, this is an interesting post, to be sure. I believe the demographic distribution of enlisted and officer ranks is a widely moving target -like nailing Jello to the wall. First, this was done during the height of the “GWOT” and just on the cusp of a financial collapse of the middle class (they were still doing well when the data was collected), the political climate was quite decisive as the reasons for war were certainly debunked, and the actual structure of the military was changing. (I’ve been working at Fort Bragg, NC for the last 15 years and the changes are overwhelming to even us). Lastly, I was in the Marines in the mid 80s and noticed HUGE numbers of E-1 to E3′s from the Rust belt (namely Mich. & Ohio along the GLs) in my infantry regiment; almost to a man they attributed their enlistment to the closing of factories and loss of jobs in that area. This study may have revealed very different results if undertaken at that time. Still, a very interesting read for me. Thanks for posting.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Stacy. It would be interesting to see how this changed over time. The foundation has earlier reports and have been tracking how these things have changed. They don’t go a far back as the 80s, alas….

  • Abi D

    One caution: the majority of this data refers specifically to the Army, but the title makes it sound as if the data represents the entirety of the military. Some states/areas have a “tradition” of joining a specific service. I’d be willing to bet that Hawaiians join the Navy in even larger numbers than the Army. I recommend either collecting more data from the other services or, if you already have it, looking at the Officer and Enlisted forces as a whole, not just the Army. USMA is not the only service acadamy, and it is unclear if the ROTC numbers refer to Army ROTC or all ROTC. Thank you!

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Unfortunately, this is all the data that was available. I would love to know more about other branches of the military, for sure. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  • jdwalker519

    This letter completely ignores the existence of Army Warrant Officers. We do not go through ROTC, nor do we go through the US Military Academy. We are our own cohort within the Officer Corps.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks for pointing this out. Unfortunately, I had to work with the data that was available. It would be interesting to see if the patterns are the same or different for Army Warrant Officers, or indeed other branches of the military (Marines, Navy, etc.).

  • Jeremy Chante Reese

    Don’t forget Territories, all of them are well represented, some of our best shooters seem to come from Puerto Rica and had never fired a shot prior to basic.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Interesting point, thank you Jeremy!

  • Charles Dodd White

    So, if I read this right, 75 % of enlistees come from combined family income of 65,000 or less, which with a family of 4-5 is pretty meager income in today’s economy. Seems to me that is a large number of folks coming from less than privileged backgrounds.

    • knorrig2

      They come from neighborhoods with those incomes. This doesn’t show that their families have those incomes.

      • Asya Pereltsvaig

        That’s true, but most people come from neighborhoods that fit their own means, no?

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      “65,000 or less, which with a family of 4-5 is pretty meager income in today’s economy”—That may be so, depending on where you live. But while 75% of enlistees come from such backgrounds, according to this study, 80% of the general population somehow does manage… The point is that “poorer” quintiles are underrepresented and the “richer” quintile is overrepresented.

  • Charles Dodd White

    Also, it’s pretty laughable to categorize an income over 65,000 as belonging to the wealthiest fifth.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      I am not sure what the survey authors based this number on, but it does seem off, though not by much.

      • Charles Dodd White

        I’ll tell you exactly what they based their numbers on. They sought a nice round 25 % number to suit the needs of this graph so they can construct the narrative as you’re trying to portray it. The problem is that they had to drop all the way down to 65,000. The variance between 65,000 and 250,000 is enormous, especially when compared with the other “quintiles” that are separated by about 10,000 each. I’d love to see how many enlistees come from above a combined income of $100,000. Almost none. This is simply a game with graphics. Critical thinking 101. Another effort by the propaganda machine known as The Heritage Foundation to sow disinformation through a policy of half-truths and subterfuge.
        I’ve served. I know who was standing beside me. There weren’t any kids from privileged backgrounds there. Period.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          “The variance between 65,000 and 250,000 is enormous, especially when
          compared with the other “quintiles” that are separated by about 10,000
          each.”— Critical thinking 101 and Basic Statistics 101, indeed: if you take the full range of household incomes from $0 to whatever the highest income is (say a million, or ten million or whatever), and look at the overall distribution of the households, you won’t get the “bell curve”. More households crowd at the bottom of the distribution than at the top or even the middle. This graph shows is very nicely. So if you divide the households into quintiles, i.e. groups of equal size, the lower quintiles will have smaller range than the top quintile. This is also why the mean and median household income is not the same number. You may well be right that there are not too many enlistees from the very far right of this graph (i.e. the very rich), but I suspect there aren’t that many from the very far left of the graph either (the very poor). I suspect that if we did the same sort of graph for enlistee backgrounds, it would be much more “bell curve” shaped…

          As for the claim that $65,000 is too low to be the lower boundary of the top quintile, I don’t know what the exact number is, as different sources give somewhat different figures, and it changes from year to year (and not always up, at least of late!) but $65,000 is not far off the figures that I have seen. What I did notice with my Stanford students, and it’s probably true for many other people as well, is that they overestimate where the “rich” begins, thinking of themselves as consistently more poor than they actually are, percentile-wise. In other words, if we ask random people on the street what the bottom of the top quintile is, they would give a higher number than the actual one.

          Let’s also not forget that it’s *household* income we are comparing. Some people expressed the view that $65,000 isn’t much for a family of 4-5, but let’s not forget that that it includes a significant number of single-income households, often with people who do not earn the top dollar either…

          And thank you for your service to the country, Charles!

  • Odun

    Just a side note, only about 1% of Americans serve at all.

    • swampyankee

      1% of a country’s population is generally considered to be the *maximum* size of regular military services.

      • Asya Pereltsvaig

        Indeed, I don’t see how this point by Odun is relevant, however.

  • jantre

    Appointments to USMA are made by politicians. Many of the more influential, senior politicians are from blue states. Does this affect the representation at West Point?

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      I am not sure I follow you…

    • Cliff

      Service academy slots are evenly distributed between all US congressmen and senators in order to force geographic representation. If slots go unfilled from one district, though, the academies can take additional applicants from high demand areas.

      • Asya Pereltsvaig

        Thanks for sharing that.

  • Pingback: Who serves in the U.S. Military? | rat blog 3.0

  • R

    Do the studies take into account other branches than the Army? What happens to the officer numbers for USAFA/USNA/USCGA? Are there states that counterbalance some of the Army-deficient states?

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      As I already pointed out in response to another comment, these data pertain to the Army, and I don’t know of any parallel data about the other branches of the military. It would be interesting to consider how the branches may be different in these respects, if anybody cared to collect and analyze the data. If you see anything about that, please let us know.

  • MDH

    I would like to see the breakdown according to MOS. I have served in support jobs and all volunteer units and have noticed differences in locales and race.

  • rachel441

    Facts: you HAVE to have a high school diploma to enlist nowadays. You HAVE to have a bachelor’s degree to be commissioned an unrestricted line officer. Of course that’s going to mean the poorest and least educated don’t go into the military. The statistics presented in this article are completely meaningless.

    • (:

      No they’re not.

      You must have a high school diploma to go to a 4 year institution. Therefore the poorest and least educated don’t go to 4 year institutions. See the correlation?

      If the military sets a standard for enlistment – by automatically disqualifying a nominal 20% of the population (high school dropouts), they in effect are only recruiting from the top 80% of society, theoretically getting anyone from the 20th percentile to the 99th percentile. The stats are not meaningless. They mean what they mean.

    • Ezra

      I have been in the Navy for over 16 years and have a Master’s Degree in Military Manpower. With that said… You don’t HAVE to have a high school diploma to enlist. Minimum education requirements are based on a tier system that combines education with AFQT scores. That tier system minimal requirement changes monthly (approximately) based on recruiting needs. Also, you don’t need a bachelor’s to be an officer. There are plenty of Chief Warrant Officer’s and Limited Duty Officers that do not have a bachelor’s degree.

      • rachel441

        Read what I wrote: Unrestricted line officer. CWO’s and LDO’s are not unrestricted line.

  • shonate martin


  • Pingback: Is there a warrior class in America? - Page 2 - Historum - History Forums

  • Pingback: Why Veteran Poverty in the US? | Poverty Nodes