North Carolina’s population growth is badly skewed towards big counties – and so is economic growth
This trend has gotten worse since 2010 and is accelerating
State lawmakers have tools to address this, but are failing to use them
By the Carolina Forward Research Team
Over the last decade, North Carolina has certainly grown. As of the 2020 Census, North Carolina is now the 9th largest state in the nation, with about 10.7 million people. That population growth has brought with it significant economic growth as well. But increasingly, our state’s growth, both in population as well as economic terms, is highly unequal in ways that conceal how much of North Carolina is struggling just to hold on.
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 mostly lives in counties that are struggling today, both in terms of population and economic growth. Over the last 10 years, most of non-urban North Carolina has experienced decline or relative stagnation in both areas. This has had seriously damaging effects on not just North Carolinians’ pocketbooks, but careers, domestic lives, health, education and future prospects.
How much of these trends can we attribute to state policymakers, versus broader economic, social and technological change, is a very open question with no clear answer. Across the United States, and in many other countries, there are population shifts to urban areas over rural ones, with attendant economic effects. That said, policymakers in North Carolina have also enacted specific policies that have the effect of hurting non-metro counties’ economies and prospects for growth, thus contributing to this trend.
The true extent of the disparity in our state’s growth is best expressed graphically. Here is an area graph of all 100 North Carolina counties with their absolute population changes over the previous decade:
Wake and Mecklenburg counties alone make up the giant spike on the left.
The 2020 Census showed that most counties (51) in North Carolina lost population over the last decade. While the other 49 gained population, many of those gained very few in real terms. The distribution of the growth was massively skewed towards larger counties. Of the 49 population-gaining counties, only 4 - Wake, Mecklenburg, Durham and Guilford - constituted 50% of all growth in the state. Wake and Mecklenburg alone were 41%:
The reality in a large majority of counties in North Carolina over the last decade has been either relative stagnation, or an emptying-out, as older residents pass on and younger residents leave for better economic opportunities elsewhere.
This pattern is a relatively recent phenomenon. Consider the pattern of population change between 2000-2010 from the 2010 Census:
In that decade, population change was much more distributed around 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 of comparatively small numbers.
By contrast, the statewide map of population change between 2010 and 2020 is much more stark:
In the 2010s, the median county in North Carolina was a slight population loser. While the I-40 corridor between the Triangle, Triad and Charlotte fared reasonably well, counties across the northeast and the Sandhills declined by double digits.
This trend of metro counties capturing a disproportionate share of growth is not slowing - if anything, it is speeding up. Since 2010, about 68% of North Carolina's population growth has come from net migration into the state, according to the state Office of State Budget and Management. According to that same report, this figure is forecast 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. Metro counties capture a very disproportionate share of those newcomers.
In "North Carolina Isn't Fooled," we noted that 48% of the state's voters are non-native, down 2% from a few years prior. With a state growing as fast as North Carolina has for so long, this is a trend we would expect: a long, steady rise in the number of non-native voters to natives.
Economic growth even more skewed
As disproportionate as population growth has been over the last decade, our state's economic growth has only been more so. Though Wake and Mecklenburg counties accounted for "only" 41% of North Carolina's entire population growth in the 2010s, they captured fully half of all GDP growth in the state:
13 counties experienced negative GDP growth over the last decade, meaning their economies shrank in absolute terms. Of the remaining 87 counties that grew, only 54 had an annualized growth rate of more than 2%. Out of the entire growth of the North Carolina economy over the last decade, two-thirds of the growth (or 61%, to be exact) went to just 6 counties: Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham, Forsyth, Buncombe and Guilford. The other 39% was split between the other 81 growth counties of the state.
Over the last decade, the economies in most of North Carolina's counties have grown slowly, and a huge swath have either been effectively stagnant or actually contracted.
Outside of the six fastest-growing counties, the median county in North Carolina grew at an annualized rate of only 1.5%.
Policy for Rural Recovery
There are innumerable reasons for the decline in rural population and economies in favor of metropolitan areas. Again, this is a pattern we see all around the county and the world. But that doesn't mean state-level policy is irrelevant. In fact, state lawmakers have many policy tools available to help support smaller and rural communities. The problem is that they simply do not use them:
- Medicaid expansion - North Carolina has experienced one of the highest rates of rural hospital closure in the country since 2010, due largely to a failure by state lawmakers to expand Medicaid. North Carolina remains one of only 12 states that has refused to opt into 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 grown into a must-have utility for anyone hoping to connect to the modern economy, but in a wide swath of North Carolina's small communities, reliable broadband is hard to come by. Municipal broadband systems are widely in use across many states, but a 2011 state law backed by cable company interests blocked them in North Carolina. Bills have been filed to lift the ban, but legislative leadership refuses to budge.
- Declining investment in public education - As state leaders have gradually cut back public investment in public education, small, rural counties, which usually lack the tax base to make up the difference, have seen their school systems left behind. Over time, this has culminated in the state failing to meet its constitutional guarantee of a sound, basic education for every North Carolina child. Adequately resourcing public school systems would be a boon to rural counties, but in the meantime, their schools are left starving for resources, setting local children further behind.
Policies like these alone would not "bring back" rural North Carolina to its heyday. But they could help stop the slide, and would undoubtedly provide significant relief to the state's rural residents.
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