North Carolina’s smallest places are experiencing some of the toughest times. Despite averaging 10 percent population growth statewide in the years since the onset of the Great Recession, the state’s rural areas are lagging significantly behind the urban areas of the state. In fact, many communities in rural North Carolina are losing jobs and seeing a long-term contraction in the working-age population—the number of people between the ages of 16 and 64.
Healthy communities have a growing population of working-age people that can support robust, long-term job creation and provide an adequate tax base to support local schools, roads, and the amenities that improve quality of life. Conversely, communities that have a declining population often struggle with job creation, business growth and with the ability to provide residents with these amenities. In turn, working-age people often leave these rural communities in search of available jobs and more attractive amenities. The result is fewer people, fewer jobs, lower tax base, and a spiral of disinvestment and population decline.
As seen in the following figure, 40 rural counties across North Carolina are experiencing the challenge of losing working-age population. And more than 30 of these counties have been designated by the state as Tier 1, the most economically distressed counties in North Carolina. At the same time, the counties that have experienced the greatest growth in their working-age population are in the state’s major urban centers—especially the Triangle, the Triad, Charlotte, and increasingly in the tourism-oriented communities along the Outer Banks.
As long as rural North Carolina continues to lag behind the rest of the state, the economic future of these rural communities will likely be troubled. Policy makers must make adequate investments in the schools, roads, and industrial infrastructure that play a vital role in creating jobs in these communities—jobs that are essential if these communities are to stop the flight of working-age people to other places.