Demographic Facts You Need to Know, NC vs. US

It’s hard to understand and process new information if we don’t have sufficient context and grounding in basic facts. A lot of what we do at Carolina Demography is help people understand the demographic facts at hand. The facts of interest are often very straightforward: how many people live in NC, where they live, how quickly populations are changing, etc. We make sure that individuals, organizations, and policy makers understand these basics so they can contextualize and make sense of more complex arguments and proposals they may encounter.

Dr. Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who writes regularly at Family Inequality, recently published an updated list of 25 demographic facts (U.S. focused) he wants his students to know cold. He notes:

Here’s the list of current demographic facts you need just to get through the day without being grossly misled or misinformed—or, in the case of journalists or teachers or social scientists, not to allow your audience to be grossly misled or misinformed.

In this vein, we present 25 demographic facts you need to know. North Carolina statistics are presented alongside national statistics for context and comparison. The links below will take you to the source of the most recent data.

1. 2016 Population Estimates, U.S. Census Bureau
2. NC Office of State Budget and Management
3. U.S. Census Bureau
4. 2015 American Community Survey
5. Bureau of Labor Statistics via NC Commerce
6. NC State Center for Health Statistics
7. National Center for Health Statistics

One-page PDF: Demographic Facts NC vs US

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Population Growth for Some Unlikely North Carolina Municipalities

July 2015 to July 2016 was the largest year of population growth for the state of North Carolina for any single-year period since the last decennial Census (2010). This was also the case for 124 of North Carolina’s municipalities, including several with previously slim or even declining population growth. These places are labeled and represented by colored markers on the Story Map below. The table accompanying each point compares the numeric and percentage growth year-to-year from 2010-2015 with the numeric and percentage growth from 2015-2016.

This map reveals the spatial component that is likely driving growth for many of these municipalities. The blue and purple rings represent buffers – of 15, 20 and 25 miles, respectively – surrounding the boundaries of North Carolina’s most populous cities. Two-thirds of these newly emerging municipalities are less than 20 miles from a major city – well within a reasonable commuting distance. As noted in a previous post, a number of these prospective suburbs and exurbs were among the fastest-growing places in the state. Nonetheless, only future Census population estimates will reveal if these growth patterns can be expected to continue, and for which places. If trends do continue, this likely indicates that residents are choosing to live and commute greater distances from North Carolina’s major urban cores.


There is an additional data source which may reveal the factors driving growth or decline in a given place: the measure of a population’s components of change. This is the sum of its births, deaths, in-migration, and out-migration. The Census Bureau only publishes these estimates as low as the county level, but they may still reveal developing trends in the cities and towns located there. For nearly all of the municipalities’ principal counties, in-migration was the main driver of growth, according to annual estimates from 2015-2016. Several of these counties had natural decrease – where deaths outnumbered births – and migration accounted for all population gains. In most cases, domestic migration exceeded international migration. Though these estimates are for the entire county – not just the municipality of interest – the nature of this growth points to suburban and exurban relocation as the most likely cause of recent population gains.

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Upcoming Data Releases of Note

In the next few months, the U.S. Census Bureau is releasing multiple data products that will provide new years of data, as well as some new detail not currently available. Here are the four most valuable updates for better understanding NC and its changing demographics:

  1. New county-to-county migration flow tables updated with 2011-15 data. The release of these tables and the update to the Census Flows Mapper web application will be the first time that non-overlapping 5-year flows tables are available for comparison (2006-10 and 2011-15). Scheduled for release August 10th. 
  2. 2016 American Community Survey: the most recent estimates of demographic, social, economic, and housing characteristics for geographic areas with populations of 65,000 or more. The 2016 ACS will be released September 14th.
  3. New language details in American FactFinder. The Census Bureau is adding new detail to the American FactFinder table on language spoken at home (Table B16001). The new languages being added are:
    • Haitian (previously “French Creole”)
    • Punjabi (previously “Other Indic languages”)
    • Bengali (previously “Other Indic languages”)
    • Telugu (previously “Other Asian languages”)
    • Tamil (previously “Other Asian languages”)
      Scheduled for release September 14th.
  4. New language details in 2016 ACS microdata (PUMS). The Bureau is adding in new language detail on languages that were previously not available. The October 2016 release of the PUMS files will contain multiple new language codes, including many new codes for African languages that were previously grouped together, such as Somali, Oromo, Tigrinya, Yoruba, and Igbo.

Although many of these linguistic communities are relatively small in North Carolina, they are concentrated in certain areas. Raleigh has a large concentration of Telugu and Tamil speakers (among the top 10 non-English and non-Spanish languages spoken in Raleigh metro). Meanwhile, Greensboro was the only metro in North Carolina where African languages (Kru, Igbo, and Yoruba) were among the top 10 languages spoken at home other than English or Spanish.

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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 Nash 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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