• North Carolina’s population growth is highly lopsided in favor of the large counties – as is economic growth.
• This trend has worsened since 2010 and is accelerating
• State legislators have tools to address this, but they don’t use them.
By Carolina Forward Research Team
Over the past decade, North Carolina has undoubtedly grown. According to the 2020 census, North Carolina is now the 9th largest state in the nation, with about 10.7 million people . That population growth has also brought with it significant economic growth. But increasingly, our state’s growth, both in population and economic terms, is wildly uneven in ways that belie how much of North Carolina is struggling to keep up.
North Carolina has a famously large rural population. In 2018, approximately 40% of the state’s population lived in a county classified as “rural” ( as defined by the NC Rural Center ). That rural (and rural-adjacent) population lives primarily in counties that are struggling today, both in terms of population and economic growth. Over the past 10 years, most of North Carolina’s non-urban areas have experienced relative decline or stagnation in both areas. This has had seriously damaging effects not only on North Carolinians’ pocketbooks, but also on their careers, home lives, health, education, and future prospects.
How much of these trends we can attribute to state policymakers or to broader economic, social, and technological changes is a very broad question with no clear answer. In the United States, and in many other countries, there are population movements to urban areas instead of rural ones, with its consequent effects on the economy. That said, North Carolina legislators have also enacted specific policies that have the effect of damaging the economies and growth potential of non-metro counties, thereby contributing to this trend.
The true extent of our state’s growth disparity is best expressed graphically. Here is a graph of the area of North Carolina’s 100 counties with their absolute population changes over the previous decade:
Only Wake and Mecklenburg counties make up the giant peak on the left.
The 2020 Census showed that the majority of counties (51) in North Carolina lost population in the last decade. While the other 49 gained population, many of them gained very little in real terms. The distribution of growth was massively skewed toward the largest counties. Of the 49 counties that increased in population, only 4 (Wake, Mecklenburg, Durham, and Guilford) accounted for 50% of all state growth. only between Wake and Mecklenburg they had 41%:
The reality in the vast majority of North Carolina counties over the past decade has been one of relative stagnation or abandonment, as older residents leave and younger residents leave in search of better economic opportunities elsewhere.
This pattern is a relatively recent phenomenon. Consider the pattern of population change between 2000 and 2010 from the 2010 Census:
In that decade, population change was much more distributed throughout the state. there were still “winners” and “losers”, but with a few exceptions, the differences were much narrower. Note that in counties like McDowell, Madison, and Macon, the dark colors on this map (meaning high rates of change) largely reflect the difference in comparatively small numbers.
Instead, the state map of population change between 2010 and 2020 is much more marked:
In the 2010s, the average North Carolina county experienced a slight loss in population. While the I-40 corridor between the Triangle, Triad, and Charlotte performed reasonably well, the Northeast and Sandhills counties were down by double digits.
This trend of metro counties capturing a disproportionate share of growth is not slowing down – if anything, it is accelerating. Since 2010, about 68% of North Carolina’s population growth has come from net migration to the state, according to the Office of State Management and Budget . According to that same report, this figure is expected to increase to 82% between 2020 and 2030. People move to North Carolina for many reasons, but the most prominent ones are to work, attend college, or retire. Metropolitan counties capture a very disproportionate share of these newcomers.
In “North Carolina Isn’t Fooled,” we note that 48% of the state’s voters are non-native, down 2% from a few years earlier. With a state growing as fast as North Carolina has for so long, this is a trend we would expect: a long and steady increase in the number of non-native versus native voters.
Economic growth even more unbalanced
As disproportionate as population growth has been over the past decade, our state’s economic growth has only gotten even more so. Although Wake and Mecklenburg counties accounted for “only” 41% of North Carolina’s total population growth in the 2010s, they captured half of all GDP growth in the state:
13 counties experienced negative GDP growth over the last decade, meaning their economies declined in absolute terms. Of the remaining 87 counties that grew, only 54 had an annualized growth rate of more than 2%. Of all the growth in North Carolina’s economy over the past decade, two-thirds of the growth (or 61%, to be exact) was in just 6 counties: Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham, Forsyth, Buncombe, and Guilford. The other 39% was divided among the state’s other 81 growth counties.
Over the past decade, the economies in most North Carolina counties have grown slowly, with much of them stagnating or declining.
“Out of the six fastest growing counties, the median North Carolina county grew at an annualized rate of just 1.5%.”
Policy for Rural Reactivation
There are myriad reasons for the decline of rural populations and economies rather than metropolitan areas. Again, this is a pattern we see across the county and the world. But that doesn’t mean that politics at the state level is irrelevant. In fact, state legislators have many policy tools available to help support smaller rural communities. The problem is that they just don’t use them:
- Medicaid Expansion – North Carolina has experienced one of the highest rates of rural hospital closures since 2010 , due in large part to state lawmakers’ failure to expand Medicaid. North Carolina remains one of 12 states that has refused to opt in to the program, established by the Affordable Care Act, which increases the number of people with health insurance coverage.
- The state ban on municipal broadband – High-speed Internet access has become a must-have for anyone wanting to connect to the modern economy, but reliable broadband is hard to find in a large proportion of North Carolina’s small communities. Municipal broadband systems are widely used in many states, but a 2011 state law backed by cable company interests blocked them in North Carolina.
- Declining investment in public education – As state leaders have gradually cut public investment in public education, small rural counties, which typically lack the tax base to make up the difference, have seen their school systems fall behind . Over time, this has culminated in that the state is failing in its constitutional guarantee of a sound basic education for North Carolina’s children. Adequate resourcing of public school systems would go a long way for rural counties, but in the meantime, their schools are left starved for resources, leaving local children even further behind.
Policies like these alone would not “return” rural North Carolina to its heyday. But they could help stem the slide and would undoubtedly provide significant relief to the state’s rural residents.