Aug 18, 2021 - Election

Census data: A tale of two North Carolinas

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City Council decides on the 2040 plan Monday.

The 2020 U.S. Census data released last week sheds light on the growing differences between rural and urban areas in North Carolina.

What’s happening: Out of North Carolina’s 100 counties, 51 lost population between 2010 and 2020, while 49 gained residents. The state added just under 904,000 new residents.

Why it matters: The influx of new jobs and people into urban areas like Charlotte and the Triangle have helped North Carolina grow more than most other states. But more than half the state, largely in rural areas, has been left out of that prosperity.

  • With loss of population comes the loss of vital services like healthcare access, and a greater responsibility for the thriving areas to come up with solutions for far-flung places.



Data: U.S. Census Bureau; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Between the lines: Nearly all of the counties that saw the sharpest population drops are located in northeastern North Carolina.

Many of them are part of the historic “black belt” region, which stretches across the South and is where the soil was most fertile for cotton plantations. They still have sizable or majority Black populations.

  • Tyrrell County’s population shrunk by 26%, the largest decline of any county in the state, and the sixth biggest decrease of any county in the country.
  • Hyde and Northampton counties also saw their populations fall by 21%.

Of note: A handful of areas that saw the sharpest decline also endured rural hospital closures in the past decade.

Biggest gains: Population growth is largely taking place in urban areas, such as Wake, Mecklenburg and Durham counties, suburbs and retirement destinations, according to the Carolina Population Center at UNC Chapel Hill.

  • Johnston County saw the largest increase in the state, at 28%.
  • Cabarrus County saw its population swell by 27%, as did Brunswick County, south of Wilmington.

Yes, but: The story of the urban-rural divide is not uniform across the state, Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University, tells me.

  • Some rural counties that have amenities like tourism or greater infrastructure saw gains, he says. For example, coastal counties like Currituck (south of Virginia Beach), Pender (north of Wilmington) and Onslow (home of Camp Lejeune) saw their populations jump by 15% to 20%.
  • In the mountains, counties like Henderson, Haywood, Jackson and Macon all saw population increases.

Political implications: The data will be used to redraw the boundaries of districts for state and national elections through a process known as redistricting. But the trends also reveal how the electorate is shifting.

  • Cooper believes that population growth in “exurban” counties, which are further outside of but still connected to cities, could be the key to understanding political changes in the state. They include places like Franklin County (north of Raleigh), which grew by 13%, and Rowan County, where the population rose by 6%.

The big picture: In this polarizing political climate, the trends reveal just how starkly divided our society is.

“I see our state becoming more and more different in a lot of ways,” Cooper says.

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