Rural Veterans: 2021-2023

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers a variety of benefits and services to eligible Veterans to help improve their health and quality of life after military service. Of the 19.0 million total Veterans in 2021, approximately one-quarter (4.6 million) live in rural areas throughout the 50 U.S. States, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. In comparison to the total adult population, the proportion of Veterans living in rural areas is higher. Based on 2021 5-year American Community Survey data, about one-fifth of the adult population resides in rural communities. In rural areas, basic levels of healthcare and preventative care may be limited or unavailable to support the health and well-being of residents. In addition to the limitations experienced by residents of rural areas, Veterans may also experience rural healthcare challenges that are worsened by service-connected injuries and illnesses.
Established by Congress in 2006 to conduct, coordinate, promote, and disseminate research on issues that affect Veterans who live in rural areas, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Office of Rural Health (ORH) estimates that 58% of rural Veterans are enrolled in the VA health care system – significantly higher than the 38% enrollment rate of urban Veterans. With a higher enrollment rate and geographical challenges, it is important to understand the unique needs of rural Veterans in order to provide adequate and comprehensive care. This report examines select demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of the Veteran population residing in rural communities compared to those residing in urban communities for Fiscal Years (FY) 2021-2023.

Age Group and Gender

Veterans living in rural areas are older than their urban counterparts. This is reflected in the following chart, which shows that in FY 2021, a larger proportion of rural Veterans were 55 and older (69%) compared to urban Veterans (64%).
The age distribution of rural and urban Veterans did not differ dramatically by gender. The figure illustrates how Veteran men residing in rural and urban areas were distributed by age group in FY 2021. While the age distributions of rural and urban men are similar, rural men are older. The majority of rural men are 65 or older while most urban men are under the age of 65.
The age distributions for rural and urban women differ from men. In general, women Veterans are younger than Veteran men. In FY 2021, 67% of Veteran men were over the age of 55 while only 43% of women were in this age group. This can be seen when comparing the age distributions of men with the age distributions of women. As with Veteran men, the age distributions of rural and urban women Veterans did not differ significantly. However, rural women were older than urban women. Although the largest cohort was 35-54 years for both rural and urban women Veterans, a larger share of rural women was in the 55-64 and 65-74 age groups than urban women.

Race and Ethnicity

Rural Veterans are less racially and ethnically diverse than urban Veterans. In FY 2021, 87% of Veterans who live in rural areas were non-Hispanic White compared to 71% of Veterans living in urban areas. Rural Veterans were less likely to be Black, Asian, multiracial, or Hispanic than urban Veterans.
This pattern persists when examining race and ethnicity by gender. However, women Veterans were more diverse than men. In FY 2021, more than one-third of women Veterans were of a race/ethnicity other than non-Hispanic White compared to about a quarter of Veteran men.

Poverty and Disability Status

During FY 2021, a slightly higher percentage of urban Veterans (7%) were living below poverty compared to rural Veterans (6%). The figure below shows that for both rural and urban Veterans, a larger proportion of those under the age of 65 were living below poverty (7% and 8%, respectively). About 6% of rural and urban Veterans 65 and older were living below poverty.
A larger proportion of rural Veterans (31%) had a disability than urban Veterans (28%) in FY 2021. This is true regardless of poverty status. However, a larger share of rural Veterans living below the poverty level had some type of disability compared to rural Veterans living at or above poverty (43% and 30%, respectively). 

Data Sources and Methods

Estimates of the number of Veterans in urban and rural areas, as defined by the Census Bureau, were developed using projections from the latest Veteran Population Projection Model (VetPop2020) and 2017-2021 American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year estimates.
  • VetPop2020 provides projections of the Veteran population for the 30-year period of 2020 to 2050 for the 50 states, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, U.S. territories, and foreign countries.
  • ACS is a national survey conducted by the Census Bureau which provides population (e.g., race, ethnicity, poverty, disability) and housing data every year for the 50 states, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The Census Bureau identifies two types of urban areas - urbanized areas (50,000 or more people) and urban clusters (at least 2,500 and less than 50,000 people). Rural areas include those not defined as an urban area. Race, ethnicity, poverty, and disability information were also obtained from the ACS. For ACS definitions of these topics, please refer to American Community Survey and Puerto Rico Community Survey 2021 Subject Definitions (census.gov)
To produce estimates of the Veteran population living in urban and rural areas, distributions from the 2021 5-year ACS data for urban areas were applied to the VetPop2020 projected number of Veterans in FY 2021-2023. This study includes the 50 states, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico only as the ACS does not include U.S. territories or foreign countries.
Estimates of the Veteran Population living in urban and rural areas by gender, age group, race, ethnicity, and poverty/disability status for FY 2021 to 2023 are available at:

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