Are NC county growth patterns shifting?

North Carolina’s population grew by 1.1% between July 1, 2016 and July 1, 2017, gaining nearly 117,000 new residents over the year. New estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau provide detail on how this growth and change occurred across the state. In North Carolina, these estimates indicate emerging trends that we will continue to examine in the coming months. For now, here’s what you need to know about the data.

1. New estimates suggest shift in state growth patterns.

During the first half of the decade, more than half (53%) of the state’s growth occurred in one of three counties: Wake, Mecklenburg, and Durham. While these counties continue to grow steadily, together they accounted for just 40% of statewide growth in 2016-17, thirteen percentage points less than their share of growth during 2010-15. Population growth is now occurring more broadly across the state. The 2017 estimates suggest a return to pre-recession growth patterns, with growth shifting to suburban and exurban counties more than occurred during the first half of the decade.

2. Retirement destinations and suburbs were the fastest growing counties in 2017.

Brunswick County remains the state’s fastest-growing county, growing by an estimated 3.6% or more than 4,500 residents between July 1, 2016 and July 1, 2017. Nearby Pender County grew nearly as rapidly (3.5%), highlighting overall strong growth in Wilmington (New Hanover) and its adjacent counties.

Brunswick, as well as Chatham and Clay counties, have strong appeal to retirees. While this older population caused them to have more deaths than births last year (negative natural increase or natural decrease), these losses were more than offset by the large gains from net in-migration.

Many of the remaining counties in the top 10 are suburban counties in the Charlotte (Cabarrus, Union) and Triangle (Johnston, Franklin) metro areas. For the first time this decade, Mecklenburg is not among the top 10 fastest growing counties and Wake is outside of the top 5.

3. 2017 was the largest single year of growth for 32 North Carolina counties.

Nearly one in three North Carolina counties had larger population increases between July 1, 2016 and July 1, 2017 than any year since 2010. With two exceptions—Forsyth County (Winston-Salem) and New Hanover County (Wilmington)—none of these 32 counties contained the principal city of a metropolitan area.

In many counties, the 2017 estimates mark a significant increase in growth. Alamance County, for example, gained an estimated 3,100 new residents during 2017. This was an increase of more than 1,000 over estimated growth during 2016. In Mitchell County, last year’s estimated growth was small (+4) but marked the first year of non-negative growth since 2010.

4. 34 counties lost population between 2016 and 2017.

Population decline remains a challenge for many North Carolina counties. Thirty-four counties had fewer residents in 2017 than in 2016—all of these counties have fewer residents today than they did in 2010.


Cumberland and Robeson counties had the largest numeric losses over the year: each county had an estimated loss of nearly 1,000 residents. Halifax, Lenoir, Edgecombe, and Duplin each lost an estimated 500-600 residents over 2016-17. The largest percentage declines were in Hyde (-2.1%) and Northampton (-1.5%) counties.

5. There is no clear story about the impact of Hurricane Matthew.

These estimates offered the first comprehensive look at county population since the impact of Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Most of the counties with the largest population losses were significantly impacted by the storm. However, most of these counties have also had steady population losses since 2010; the 2017 estimates are generally consistent with these broader trends.

It is impossible to tell what might have happened in these counties had Hurricane Matthew not occurred. Would these counties also have benefited from the broader growth patterns observed in other parts of the state during 2017? Alternatively, it may be that the population impacts of the storm are not easily measured at the county level. The municipal estimates scheduled for release in late May will provide another opportunity to further evaluate population shifts in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew.

Download 2017 data tables here.

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Non-Native North Carolina Residents, 2012-2016

The percentage of the state’s total population not born in North Carolina continues to rise. Recent estimates from the American Community Survey indicate that 43% of the overall population is non-native, up 1 percentage point from previous five-year estimates when this share was 42%.

This share is even higher among the adult population. Nearly half of all individuals 18 and older were born somewhere else and this group has grown faster than the population overall. This growth reflects how attractive North Carolina is to migrants of all ages with a range of educational, employment and retirement opportunities. If these prospects remain abundant, the share of adult North Carolinians born outside of the state may continue to increase.

While the state share of non-native residents is 43%, the share of residents born outside of the state varies dramatically across our 100 counties. In eighteen counties, more than half of residents are non-native. Currituck County ranked number one among these counties with three-fourths of its population born outside of the state. Currituck’s close proximity and economic ties to the Virginia Beach metro area likely contributes to this large non-native population share.

Over the past five years, two new counties have seen their non-native population grow to at least half: Union County (51%) and Brunswick County (53%). These additions likely reflect the expansion of the Charlotte metro area into Union and the appeal of Brunswick County for many out-of-state retirees.

Meanwhile, Gates County—at 50% in the previous five-year period—saw its non-native population decline by three percentage points, bringing it to 47%.

At the other end, there were 23 North Carolina counties where less than one-fourth of residents were born outside of the state. Though the total number of counties has not changed, the list of counties has changed considerably in the past five years.

Four counties had non-native populations greater than or equal to 25% during 2007-2011 but not in 2012-16*:

  • Hyde County: 31% in 2007-11 vs. 21% in 2012-16
  • Graham County: 30%vs. 24.8%
  • Wilson County: 26% vs. 24%
  • Richmond County: 25% vs. 23%

Hyde County and Graham County saw the most significant losses at 10 percentage points and 5 percentage points, respectively.

There are also four counties whose share of non-native North Carolinians grew to one-fourth or more of the total population over this time period*:

  • Person County: 24% in 2007-11 vs. 25.4% in 2012-16
  • Northampton County: 24% vs. 26%
  • Stokes County: 24.5% vs. 27%
  • Mitchell County: 24% vs. 32%

Of these four counties, Mitchell had the largest gain in non-native population, with the share of non-native residents increasing by eight percentage points in five years.

*Note: Since its initial publishing, this text has been expanded with additional data for clarification.

Data source: Data in this post were from the 2012-16 and 2007-11 American Community Surveys from the U.S. Census Bureau.
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NC in Focus: Black Population in North Carolina, 2016

February marks the arrival of Black History Month, dedicated to celebrating the achievements of Black Americans throughout history. It began as a weeklong celebration in 1926, selected to correspond with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass on February 12th and Abraham Lincoln on February 14th. 50 years later, President Gerald Ford officially recognized the entire month for this commemoration.

2.2 million

The total black or African-American population, alone, in North Carolina, as of 2016. This is 22% of North Carolina’s total population.

An additional 155,269 residents identified as black or African American in combination with another race. In total, 2.35 million individuals identify as black or African-American (alone or in combination), accounting for a total of 23% of the state population.1

2.7 million

The 2035 projected black population, according to the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management. This is an increase of half a million new residents or 22% in the next 19 years. Because the state’s black population is projected to grow at nearly the same rate as the state overall (21%), black North Carolinians will comprise a similar share of the state’s population in 2035 (22%) as they do today.2


The number of counties in North Carolina that had a black population of 100,000 or more in 2016.*

Mecklenburg County ranks #1 with a population of 344,627 black or African-American residents. The remaining five county populations, in order, are: Wake (221,671), Guilford (180,180), Cumberland (126,586), Durham (117,388), and Forsyth (101,641).3

*Note: this population estimate includes individuals who identify as black alone regardless of ethnicity, meaning it includes both non-Hispanic and Hispanic black residents.


The share of North Carolina’s total black population that identified as Hispanic in 2016, up from 3.2% in 2013.

Among the 6 counties with the largest black populations, residents in Guilford County were the least likely to identify as Hispanic (2.6%) while black residents in Forsyth County were much more likely to report Hispanic ethnicity (5.9%).3


The median age of the black population, for both sexes, in North Carolina.1


The percentage of the black population born in North Carolina – 12 percentage points higher than the share of all residents born in the state (57%).1


The percentage of the black population (18+), that has military veteran status. This is just over 142,000 individuals.1


The number of black students enrolled in college or graduate school in North Carolina.1

$1.7 billion

The estimated total economic impact, based on 2014 data, of North Carolina’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), according to a report published by UNCF and the University of Georgia.

This estimate includes the direct spending made by HBCUs on its faculty, staff, academic programs and students, as well as the indirect effects which occur as a result of that spending.4


The estimated number of black residents working in management, business, science, and arts occupations in North Carolina.1


The percentage of firms in North Carolina with paid employees that are black-owned. They received 1.3% of total receipts in 2012.5

In certain regions of the state, this share is much higher. In the Sandhills, for example, 21% of the region’s firms are black-owned.6

1. 2016 ACS 1-year Estimates
2. NC OSBM County/State Population Projections: Sex, Race, Age Groups (2000-2037)
3. 2016 Census Population Estimates
4. HBCUs Make America Strong: The Positive Economic Impact of North Carolina’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. United Negro College Fund and the University of Georgia Terry College of Business, 2017.
5. 2012 Census Survey of Business Owners
6. Small Businesses and Access to Capital in North Carolina. Carolina Small Business Development Fund, 2017.
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Suburban and Exurban Growth in North Carolina’s Two Major Metro Areas

New Geography recently reported on the extent of urban growth among the United States’ 53 major metropolitan areas (defined as having more than one million residents). Findings indicate that the majority of growth has taken place outside of the urban core, within the suburban and exurban regions of the metro area. North Carolina is home to two of these fifty-three major metropolitan areas: Charlotte and Raleigh. Using Wendell Cox’s City Sector Model, we explored the nature of urban growth particular to these two areas.

The City Sector Model “classifies population using demographic and land-use factors that changed materially around the time of World War II, after which the automobile sealed its dominance” (Cox, 2017). Urban areas that originated prior to WWII feature much greater population densities, while development taking place after 1946 has been primarily low-density suburbs. Vehicle ownership is usually necessary to live in post-war developments, as cities and towns lack adequate public transit or nearby walkable areas. Using the most recent 2012-2016 American Community Survey (ACS) data at the zip code level (ZCTA), we used the City Sector Model to classify zip codes and parse the boundaries of development in these major metropolitan areas.

The CSM breaks down metro areas into four major development groups: Pre-WW2 Urban Core, Post-WW2 Suburban: Early (“Earlier Suburbs”), Post-WW2 Suburban: Later (“Later Suburbs”), and Exurban (“Exurbs”). Zip codes classified as Urban Core, Earlier Suburbs, and Later Suburbs must fall within the boundaries of the principal Urban Area (i.e. the physical city forming the core of the metropolitan area). Exurbs fall outside of the principal Urban Area boundaries, but within the boundaries of the greater metropolitan statistical area (MSA). In other words, these zip codes are understood to be a part of the functional city, forming a portion of its labor market and economic base. For more information on the classification criteria, please see the Appendix at the end of this blog.

A Look at Charlotte and Raleigh’s Present-Day Geographies

Upon classification of the zip codes forming Charlotte and Raleigh’s metropolitan areas, one thing is immediately clear: there is no Pre-WWII Urban Core in either MSA. Southeastern states were largely rural up to WWII, and industrial growth occurred much later than it did in the northeastern United States. New development in the late 20th and early 21st century also replaced many existing properties, leaving behind fewer historic buildings and districts. Our analysis found no zip codes within the physical city boundaries where the median year of the local housing stock was 1946 or earlier – in fact, there are very few anywhere in the state of North Carolina.

Charlotte’s metropolitan area is primarily auto exurban – outside of the principal urban area – which may be indicative of its very recent growth into the surrounding region. The Census Bureau places the boundary of Charlotte’s principal Urban Area just over the state boundary line, as those immediate zip codes are, in form and function, a part of the physical city.

Raleigh’s metropolitan area features a greater balance of Later Suburbs to Exurbs, but despite its much longer history as a prominent city in North Carolina, it contains just as few Early Suburbs as Charlotte does. As we have noted previously, growth from these two metropolitan areas alone accounted for over 70% of North Carolina’s total growth since 2010. In the following section, we will investigate how these zip codes have developed since the 2010 Census, and if new trends are beginning to emerge.

Suburban and Exurban Development: 2010 to 2016

We compared the 2010 Census population data to the 2012-2016 American Community Survey data used to perform the City Sector Analysis, as New Geography did. The residential population experienced only minor changes for either MSA, yet some data suggests a potential shift in the desired city sector for new residents.

Here we sought to measure the percentage of the population living in each city sector of Charlotte and Raleigh’s metropolitan areas from 2010 and the five-year average from 2012-2016. The distribution of Charlotte’s population has remained rather unchanged from 2010, though its exurbs declined from 51% of the population in 2010 to 49%. The population share in historic neighborhoods of Charlotte remained at 7%, while the Later Suburbs gained an additional 1% share of the population during this period of time (from 43% to 44%).

Note: percentages may exceed 100% due to rounding.

Raleigh’s population composition also remained virtually identical from 2010 to 2012-16. The share of Raleigh’s population living in exurban areas experienced no change. Meanwhile, its Earlier Suburbs lost 1% of its population share, while the Later Suburbs gained 1% of the share. A much greater proportion of Raleigh’s population resides in the Later Suburbs than Charlotte’s population – 61% compared to 44%.

Noting this slight shift in population composition over time, we also examined where population growth occurred for Raleigh and Charlotte. They had remarkably similar profiles. The majority of population growth from 2010 to 2012-16 occurred within the Later Suburbs in both metro areas: 67% of total growth in Charlotte and 66% in Raleigh. This follows a similar pattern observed in the recent work by New Geography on all large United States’ MSAs.

While real estate markets in the twentieth century were dominated by new, low-density suburban infrastructure, shifting consumer preferences for “greater connectivity, convenient amenities…as well as a firmer commitment to sustainability”, as noted by the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina, have resulted in greater mixed-use, higher-density redevelopment.

While Charlotte and Raleigh lack the Pre-WWII-era “Urban Core” neighborhoods as identified by the City Sector Model – characterized by high population density and greater usage of non-auto transit – developers are designing residential areas with these pre-automobile principles in mind. One recent example of urban infill is Charlotte’s SouthPark district, currently classified as “Late Suburb”. The large share of population growth taking place in these areas, as opposed to low-density Exurban areas, may be further evidence of shifting consumer attitudes and future development.


Source: New Geography; City Sector Model – Wendell Cox (December 2017)

For our analysis, we classified zip codes (ZCTAs) contained within the boundaries of the Core-Based Statistical Area (CBSA) as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. These areas consist of “the county of counties or equivalent entities associated with at least one core (urbanized area or urban cluster) of at least 10,000 population, plus adjacent counties having a high degree of social and economic integration with the core”.

According to the model classification criteria, Urban Core, Earlier Suburban, and Later Suburban sectors must fall within the “principal urban area”. Principal Cities are also defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as “the largest incorporated place with a population of at least 10,000 in the CBSA, or if no incorporated place of at least 10,000 population is present in the CBSA, the largest incorporated place or census designated place (CDP) in the CBSA”. It also includes “any additional incorporated place or CDP with a population of at least 250,000 or in which 100,000 or more persons work; any additional incorporated place or CDP with a population of at least 50,000 and in which the number of jobs meets or exceeds the number of employed residents; and any additional incorporated place or CDP with a population of at least 10,000 but less than 50,000 and at least one-third the population size of the largest place and in which the number of jobs meets or exceeds the number of employed residents”.

One limitation to this data is that ZCTAs often extend beyond the boundaries of the CBSA and the Principal City. For the purposes of this analysis, ZCTAs with a geographic centroid (center) located within a CBSA or Principal City boundary were assigned to that area.

Counties in the Metropolitan Statistical Area

The Charlotte metropolitan statistical area includes seven counties in North Carolina: Mecklenburg, Rowan, Union, Iredell, Lincoln, Gaston, and Cabarrus. It also includes three counties in South Carolina: York, Lancaster, and Chester.

The Raleigh metropolitan statistical area includes three counties in North Carolina: Wake, Johnston, and Franklin.

Errata: This post originally stated that there are six counties in North Carolina associated with the Charlotte metropolitan area. There are in fact seven counties, and the post has been updated to reflect this.

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5 facts to know about migration between NC and other states

Migration is the main driver of North Carolina’s population growth. Three of every four new residents added to the state between July 1, 2016, and July 1, 2017, were from net migration, primarily from other states. (Note: individuals are classified as domestic or international migrants based on their country of prior residence, not on individual characteristics such as place of birth or citizenship status.) Between 2016 and 2017, the Census Bureau estimates that North Carolina had more population growth from domestic net migration than any other state except for Florida and Texas.

1. Nearly 600,000 individuals moved between North Carolina and other states in 2016

While the U.S. Census Bureau’s July 1 population estimates provide the best data on net gains (or losses) from migration, the 1-year American Community Survey provides detail on the ebbs and flows of individuals across state lines.

During 2016, more than 322,000 individuals moved to North Carolina from another state while 261,000 North Carolina residents moved elsewhere in the United States. In total, just over 583,000 individuals moved between North Carolina and another state in 2016. This was the highest volume of migration between North Carolina and other states since 2007, the prior peak, when just over 565,000 individuals moved to or from North Carolina and other states.

2. Net domestic migration remains low compared to mid-2000s

Although the total number of people moving between North Carolina and other states has returned to pre-recession levels, more people are moving out and fewer are moving in. As a result, the state gained an estimated 61,000 net domestic migrants during 2016. While this is an increase from 2011-2014, it is down from 2015 and less than half the prior peak of 128,000 in 2006. Continue reading

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