Between 1990 and 1995, North Carolina’s population increased by more than 550,000 new residents, a growth rate of 8.3%. The numeric growth in the next decade was even greater: the state grew by 7.9% to gain an estimated 637,000 new residents between 2000 and 2005. Though North Carolina continues to grow faster than the national average, the 2015 estimates indicate that the size and rate of growth has slowed. Between 2010 and 2015, North Carolina added 507,000 new residents, a growth rate of 5.3%.
What is driving these shifts?
Population growth—or decline—is fueled by two underlying processes. The first, natural increase (or natural decrease) represents the balance of births and deaths in an area and reflects the underlying age structure of the population. Relatively young populations tend to have more births than deaths—natural increase—while relatively older populations tend to have more deaths than births—natural decrease. The second, net migration, represents the balance of people moving into an area minus the people moving out. Net migration typically reflects the relative appeal of an area compared to other areas. Economically vibrant areas, for example, tend to have net in-migration, while locations that have suffered job losses or natural disasters frequently experience net out-migration.
Both of these factors are important for population growth in North Carolina. Every year for the past 35 years, North Carolina’s population has grown because it has had more births than deaths (natural increase) and because more people have moved into the state than moved away (net in-migration). The large population increases in the 1990s and 2000s were fueled from significant increases in net in-migration to the state. Many of these in-migrants were relatively young and helped grow the population through natural increase, as well.
During 2010-2015, North Carolina’s population growth from natural increase was significantly lower, and was only slightly higher than natural increase during 1980-1985. The state had 198,000 more births than deaths over this time period, a decline of about 20% from 2000-2005. This reflects a combination of two factors. First, there were fewer births; birth rates have declined since the Great Recession and show no sign of rebounding. Second, the absolute number of deaths has increased, driven by both population growth and population aging.
Net migration to the state is also down compared to the first five years of the 1990s and 2000s, though it remains much higher than net migration during the 1980s. North Carolina pulls in migrants of all ages and has emerged as a retiree destination in the past 10-20 years. As population aging continues to impact the state, net migration will play an increasing role in overall population growth.