Past, present, or future, net migration is the main driver of NC growth

Population can grow—or decline—from one of two components of change: net migration (both domestic and international) or natural growth (births and deaths). Both components have contributed to North Carolina’s population growth.

Every year since 1980, North Carolina has had more births than deaths, meaning the population has grown from natural increase. The level of natural increase peaked in the late 2000s and has since declined significantly, reflecting the combined impact of fertility declines and population aging. Between 2015 and 2016, North Carolina experienced the lowest amount of natural increase recorded in the state since 1970.

While net migration levels declined after the Great Recession, they are beginning to rebound. Net migration has been the driving source of state population growth since 1990. Net migration will become an even more important part of the state’s future population growth over the next 20 years as population aging (increased deaths) and declining fertility rates (fewer births) continue to reduce total growth from natural increase.

The state demographer at the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management projects that North Carolina will continue to attract net migrants. If past trends are an indication, these are individuals who will move here for educational and employment opportunities, as well as individuals who will move here to retire. Between 2000 and 2010, 68% of the state’s growth was due to net migration. By 2030-2035, nearly all of North Carolina’s growth—97.5%—is projected to be from net migration.

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Examining Decline in North Carolina’s Municipalities

Despite substantial growth in some areas of the state, a large portion of North Carolina has seen little to no population increase. Of North Carolina’s 553 municipalities, 225, or about 41%, experienced population decline from 2010-2016. An additional 192 reported growth that was lower than 6.4%, the state’s growth rate since 2010. In total, three of every four North Carolina municipalities have lost population or grown slower than the state since 2010. The northeast corridor of the state has been the hardest hit, as the top 10 municipalities with greatest percentage declines from 2010-2016 have been from Bertie, Northampton, or Washington counties.

Note: while Rocky Mount crosses two counties, it is located primarily in Edgecombe County.

The Census Bureau and the state demographer at the NC Office of State Budget and Management use different methodologies to produce municipality estimates, which can lead to differing results. A major discrepancy that exists between the two estimates is Jacksonville in Onslow County. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Jacksonville has had the largest numerical drop in population from 2010-2016, losing nearly 2,400 residents. In contrast, the state demographer at NC OSBM estimates that Jacksonville has grown by over 7,300 residents from 2010-2015 (most recent estimate at state level). It is currently unknown exactly why such a large discrepancy exists and we do not know which is closest to the true underlying population. (For this, we need to wait for the 2020 Census.)

Patterns of Entrenched Decline in Certain Counties

Many of the municipalities with the greatest losses since 2010 are also represented in the following table highlighting population losses between 2015 and 2016. While this similarity indicates that the trend towards decline in these areas is not likely to cease, some municipalities may be experiencing a “leveling out” from large population drops. Rocky Mount only lost an estimated 77 residents from 2015-2016, after losing an average of 437 residents annually since 2010. Elizabeth City and Laurinburg – also among those with the greatest losses since 2010 – reported modest gains from 2015-2016. A number of other municipalities also demonstrated this trend, which will be explored in the following post.

Municipalities in Bertie and Northampton counties continued to report the greatest percentage declines in this single-year period. Three new municipalities from Bertie County – Powellsville, Roxobel, and Colerain – have appeared on the top 10 list, demonstrating the nearly universal experience of population decline across the county. The municipalities from Northampton County which they replaced – Conway, Gaston, and Seaboard – still lost over 2% of their population from 2015-2016. Two municipalities from Jones County are also now represented, Trenton and Maysville. Jones County, the fifth-least populous county in the state, has been on a steady decline since the last census.

Projections for Bertie, Northampton, Jones, and Washington County indicate that further population decline is imminent. According to the Census’ data on components of change from 2010 to 2016, each of these counties demonstrated negative natural growth or natural decrease – whereby deaths outnumber births – and net out-migration from the county. This pattern has occurred each year since the last decennial census.

Natural decrease will only increase in these counties, as each contains a large elderly population. Age data from the Census Bureau indicates that 23% of Northampton County’s population is 65 years or older, followed by Washington County (22%), Jones County (20%), and Bertie County (19%). By comparison, only 16% of the population of North Carolina is 65+ years old.

In terms of migration trends, annual data is limited on who is moving out of each of these counties. Historical trends for these counties suggest out-migration is greatest among young, working-age individuals who may be leaving in search of better economic opportunities, as one Bertie County resident observed last year. These patterns further accelerate population decline, as individuals of childbearing age choose not to start families in these areas.

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NC in Focus: Fast-growing older population also growing more diverse

North Carolina’s population, much like the nation at large, is growing older and more diverse. The new 2016 detailed population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau provide data on the age, sex, and racial/ethnic composition of state and county populations.

In North Carolina, the 65 and older population grew from 1.2 million in 2010 to 1.6 million in 2016, an increase of 335,000 or 27%. As of 2016, 15.5% of North Carolina’s population was 65 or older, slightly higher than the national share of 15.2%, and a significant increase since 2010 when the share was 12.9%.

At the same time, the state’s population grew increasingly diverse. While the total population grew by 611,000 or 6.4% between 2010 and 2016, some groups grew at much faster rates:

  • The Asian population was the fastest-growing group in the state, growing by 36% to 293,000.
  • The population of individuals identifying as 2 or more races increased by 26% to reach a population of 187,000.
  • The Hispanic population grew by 17% to 932,000.
  • The black population grew by 7.2% to 2.2 million.
  • The American Indian population grew by 4.8% to 115,000.
  • The white population grew by 3.4% to 6.4 million.

Numerically, the largest population gains between 2010 and 2016 were for the state’s white population (212,000), followed by growth in the state’s black (146,000), Hispanic (132,000), Asian (78,000), multiracial (38,000), and American Indian (5,000) populations.

While these trends are impacting the population in distinct ways, they are also intersecting at older ages. North Carolina’s population ages 65 and older is growing, and it is rapidly growing more diverse, as Asian and Hispanic residents who moved to North Carolina in the 1990s and 2000s begin to age into this age category. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of Asian and Hispanic North Carolinians age 65 and older nearly doubled:

  • The Asian population 65+ increased by nearly 9,700, rising from 12,000 to 21,600, a growth rate of 81%.
  • The Hispanic population 65+ grew from 17,000 to just over 31,000, an increase of 14,300 or 84%.

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NC Municipal Growth, 2016 Annual Update

The U.S. Census Bureau recently made its 2016 population estimates available, and the topline trends for North Carolina has maintained a nearly identical trajectory as 2015. Since the last decennial Census in 2010, North Carolina has seen its urban metropolitan areas grow consistently larger, while small, often rural municipalities have struggled to maintain population.

North Carolina’s two largest metropolitan statistical areas – Charlotte-Concord and the Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) – have driven much of North Carolina’s total growth since 2010, accounting for 72% of the state’s 611,000 person growth. For every one-year period since the last census (e.g. 2010-2011, 2012-2013, etc.), the cities of Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, and Cary have reported the largest numeric gains in population, typically in that order. Greensboro and Winston-Salem of the Triad, and the port communities around Wilmington, have also made significant gains since 2010.

Note: while some municipalities cross multiple counties, Cary, Wake Forest, and Morrisville are located primarily in Wake County.

Development of North Carolina’s Suburbs

While the topline trends have been consistent over the past few years, 2015 to 2016 was a unique year for North Carolina’s population. It was the single largest year of growth for the state since 2010, as well as for 124 of its 553 municipalities. Of these municipalities, a number had significant population additions after having had consecutive years of negative or single-digit gains, a topic I will explore more in an upcoming post. The major trend seen in 2016 was the expansion of suburbs around metro areas. This growth occurred in both well-established municipalities and small, less populated ones.

Of the cities and towns with the largest population gains since 2015, 9 out of 10 were from the Triangle or Charlotte. These have pushed the municipalities of the Triad out of the top 10. The county populations of Guilford (Greensboro) and Forsyth (Winston-Salem) are projected to stabilize for the next decade, in contrast to the continued growth in the core counties in the Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill metros.

Municipalities with the fastest growth from 2015-2016 reveal new trends that may be emerging in North Carolina. Small- and medium-sized suburbs in metropolitan areas saw growth that was much larger than their recent historical averages. While a number of municipalities were located near the Triangle, new metro areas were also represented around Greenville, Burlington, and Jacksonville.

A breakdown of some of these fastest-growing municipalities:

  • #1 on this list, Stem, grew by no more than 3 individuals during any one-year period since 2010, until 2015-2016 when it added an estimated 95 new residents. It is 23 minutes north-east of downtown Durham.
  • Rolesville, Wendell, and Fuquay-Varina are all contained within Wake County, and 30 minutes or less from Raleigh. If trends continue, Rolesville is set to double its 2010 population by 2017!
  • Simpson is a suburb of Greenville, where East Carolina University is located.
  • Swepsonville is a municipality within the Burlington metro area and roughly 30 minutes from Chapel Hill and Durham.
  • Holly Ridge is a town in the Jacksonville metro area, where the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune is located.
  • St. James is located in the Myrtle Beach metro area, where many retirement communities have sprung up in the last few years. Brunswick County, which contains St. James, has also been the fastest-growing county since 2010, surpassing even fast-growing Wake and Mecklenburg.

Whether the 2016 population estimates are the beginning of a new growth pattern in North Carolina remains to be seen. If these trends continue, we may see an uptick of growth in the state’s suburban and ex-urban areas near fast-growing metropolitan areas.

Note: while some municipalities cross multiple counties, Cary and Wake Forest are located primarily in Wake County.


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Declining Growth from Natural Increase: The Impact of Population Aging

Net migration has been a major driver of North Carolina’s growth since 1990 and its importance will only increase in coming years. The only other potential source of growth is natural increase—births minus deaths—and this has been declining since the recession. In my recent post, I noted that even if fertility rates increase significantly, we should not expect natural increase to rebound to prior levels, largely due to the growing impacts of population aging.

Although population aging is frequently discussed, it is often hard to fully grasp the magnitude of these impacts. One way we can try to better understand composition shifts is through standardization. To understand the impacts that the state’s changing age structure has on natural increase, I assumed a total population of 10 million (NC’s population in 2015). I then distributed this population according to the observed and projected age structure of the state in 5-year intervals from 1970 through 2035. Last, I estimated the number of deaths that would occur under a given age structure by using 2015 age-specific mortality rates from the NC State Center for Health Statistics.

North Carolina’s age structure has shifted markedly over the past 45 years. In 1970, the impacts of the Baby Boom were still visible: 39% of the state’s population was under the age of 20. At the same time, just 8% of the population was 65 and older.

Since 1970, the population proportion under the age of 20 has steadily declined while the population at older ages has steadily grown. As of 2015, just over a quarter (26%) of the state’s population was under 20 while 15% were age 65 or older. By 2035, the under 20 population is projected to shrink to 23% of the state’s population while the 65 and older population is projected to account for 21% of all residents.

In 2015, North Carolina’s age-specific mortality rates per 100,000 ranged from 62 for individuals under age 20 to 14,482 for individuals ages 85 and older. Holding these rates constant, the estimated number of deaths shifts significantly as age structure shifts, reflecting the impact of higher mortality rates at older ages.

Applying the current rates to a population of 10 million with the state’s 2015 age structure yields just over 92,000 deaths. In comparison, the same total population and same rates with the younger age structure of 1970 would have 40% fewer deaths (54,400). A shift to the older age structure of 2035, however, would increase the number of deaths by more than 30% to 121,000.

Barring radical improvements in mortality (e.g., halving older-age mortality rates – an unlikely proposition), the number of deaths in North Carolina will steadily increase as the population proportion at older ages grows. Modest increases in fertility and reductions in mortality rates are unlikely to offset the impact of this aging population on natural increase.

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