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IEI Takeaways: Population Trends in NC – Half the Story

Here at the Institute for Emerging Issues, we find ourselves engaged in a number of conversations surrounding key issues in our state. We read, research and discuss a myriad of topics and often share our takeaways internally. Here’s a look inside a unique topic of discussion from IEI’s Senior Manager of Policy and Programs Sarah Langer Hall.

IEI Senior Manager of Policy and Programs Sarah Langer Hall

Between 2010 and 2018, 40 percent of the almost 850,000 new residents to the state chose Wake and Mecklenburg counties to call home. Urban areas including Asheville, Greensboro and Wilmington also had strong growth. But 43 NC counties—mostly rural—lost population, and other rural areas experienced below-average growth. The NC News Collaborative, a new consortium of more than 20 North Carolina newspapers, recently published a series of articles examining the reason for population decline and how population trends in North Carolina’s rural and urban areas are impacting politics. New redistricting maps, redrawn as a result of court mandate, will last only one election season. They will be redrawn again in 2021 using new population data from the 2020 Census. When that happens, and regardless of the political party leading that process, areas of the state losing population (aka rural) will continue to lose influence.

The underlying message here appears to be that urban is thriving and rural is dying. But as some of the articles in the series reveal, that narrative isn’t completely accurate. The truth is much more nuanced. Two years into our ReCONNECT NC effort, I’ve learned a lot about the bright spots of rural North Carolina—made up of the most resilient among us. They have intelligent people tackling very complex challenges and creatively leveraging every asset they can to support their communities. Many, including those participating in our ReCONNECT NC community cohorts, are working regionally with the guiding principle that “A Win for One is a Win for All!” From the cooperation of the 17 counties participating in the Carolina Core regional economic development initiative to brand four job development platforms, to Western NC’s Growing Outdoors Partnership seeking to expand the region’s outdoor recreation industry in ways that benefit both rural and urban/suburban communities, to Project 40’s bold goal of creating equitable opportunity across rural and urban by having 40 percent of the Triangle’s food coming from regional NC sources by the year 2040. And the list goes on.

Our rural and urban communities are highly interconnected—by workforce, natural assets, supply chains and other elements. Boundaries are increasingly fluid for individuals seeking education, healthcare, affordable housing and other needs. They hardly exist when it comes to natural resources such as water and air. And the global market is driving flows of goods and services across county lines. We believe that finding ways to more effectively promote and leverage these interdependencies could lead to shared prosperity across the state. And the interest is there. Just ask the 500 North Carolinians who joined us last February for the ReCONNECT Rural and Urban Emerging Issues Forum.