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Marching on: Military Service and the Social Conditions of Puerto Ricans in the U.S.

The role of military service in the establishing, spreading and the socioeconomic profile of Puerto Rican communities in the mainland U.S. is an understudied phenomenon. Puerto Rican military personnel have dispersed throughout the U.S. beyond what has been considered as traditional centers of Puerto Rican migration. Moreover, active military personnel and veterans are the core of such migration both in numbers and in influence.

Recent research at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (Centro) shows Puerto Rican communities are indeed forming around military bases, not just in el Nuevo South but also in the Midwest and Western states. Even the non-military population in these states is concentrating around military installations. The following maps show Puerto Rican settlement around military bases in the South. These two maps evidence the increase in the concentration of Puerto Rican population around Naval, Air Force and Army bases.

Map 1: Distribution of military bases and Puerto Rican population in the South (2000)

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Map 2: Distribution of military bases and Puerto Rican population in the South (2010)

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Although the state of Florida remains the state with the highest concentration of Puerto Rican military population for the years 2000 and 2010, new patterns of Puerto Rican military settlement are apparent throughout the southern US. In a future issue of Centro Voices, we will examine closely the population settlement throughout the country.

Overall, our research shows that the veteran and active duty military Puerto Rican population enjoys a higher quality of life (income, education, employment, home ownership) than its non-veteran counterpart.

In terms of housing ownership, Puerto Rican veterans in the U.S. have a higher percentage of home ownership in selected states than the non-veteran population. For example, in the state of Kentucky, the percentage represents the largest margin with 70% of home ownership compared to 43% of the non-veteran population.

The data about educational attainment among both Puerto Ricans in active duty and veterans indicates a higher rate of bachelor’s degree completion for veterans and military personnel in active duty than the non-military population.

Puerto Rican veterans enjoy higher median income and lower unemployment and poverty rates than the non-veteran population, In 2013, for example the mean income of island-side Puerto Rican female veterans (with income) was $33,109 while for non-veteran females it was $20,045; for male veterans it was $33,577 compared with $22,139 for non-veterans. For youth serving in the military, serving in the armed forces is a pathway to socioeconomic advancement, and this path is inherently linked to migration to the United States.

Income for Veterans and Non-Veterans, U.S. and Puerto Rico

Source: US Census Bureau, American Community Survey 1-year estimates 2005-2013.

In sum, the questions and discussion in this study point at the historical role of military service as an economic escape valve and path towards middle-class status for a disadvantaged population, and as a facilitator of spatial mobility. The data shows that Puerto Rican veterans and service members make socio-economic gains that put them more or less at par with the median for civilians in the US as a whole. Since World War II, military service has been one of the constant sources of employment, skills development, and work experience available to Puerto Rican youth both on the island and in the United States. Although many studies have documented the contributions of Puerto Ricans to the military, especially during wars, to date there are very few studies examining military services as an industry that provides career advancement and opportunities as well as spatial mobility.

Puerto Rican military personnel and veterans are indeed changing the landscape of the U.S. mainland and opening new spaces.  What these changes will signify for the Puerto Rican, Latino and overall U.S. population and society has yet to be seen and further studied. But one thing is certain, both veterans and active duty personnel have changed the demographic and socioeconomic profiles of Puerto Ricans and their communities throughout the U.S.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 22 May 2015.