Prosperity Watch Issue 50, No. 1: New data highlights economic challenges and opportunities in all 100 NC counties

The Budget & Tax Center released a new data tool that provides key indicators of socio-economic well-being in all 100 counties which can be accessed here with two-page snapshots for each county here. One key finding from a review of these indicators is that tremendous variation exists across North Carolina in terms of opportunity and outcomes for residents. Depending on where one lives in the state, one could expect to live longer, have more employment opportunities, improved access to health care providers and more affordable housing. 

Educational attainment is another measure that shows considerable variation by county.  Increased educational attainment not only generates improved lifetime earnings and protection against the worst employment outcomes, it is found to be a marker for the strength of the overall economy. Variation across the 100 counties in educational attainment is both a cause and a consequence of policy decisions that have failed to effectively build out an infrastructure of opportunity across the state.

North Carolina ranked 28th in the country for its percent of residents with an Associate’s degree or higher (34 percent) according to the Working Poor Families Project.   Just 27.3 percent of North Carolinians have a Bachelor’s degree or higher.  The range in educational attainment across the 100 counties fluctuates by as much as 40 percentage points.  In nine counties (Tyrrell, Caswell, Northampton, Anson, Duplin, Bladen, Edgecombe, Bertie, and Hyde), the percent of the county population with a Bachelor’s degree or higher is 10 percent or less. In four counties (Mecklenburg, Durham, Wake and Orange), 40 percent or more of the county population has a Bachelor’s degree or higher.

States with higher educational attainment not only have higher productivity but higher median wages. In these states, higher levels of education have led to producing more goods and services and the new income from that greater productivity and economic growth is returned to workers in the form of higher wages. 

To raise educational attainment, adequate investments in the education pipeline are critical. And yet, under a fiscal framework that privileges tax cuts over investment, it is difficult to make needed investments to ensure early education opportunities are of high quality, classrooms in K-12 are centers of learning and post-secondary education is affordable.

The potential for educational attainment to strengthen the economy is also undermined if the state, in particular, is not investing but relying on local communities to fund education. A state commitment to education is critical to ensure that inequities don’t persist or grow for communities across the state.  As the NC Public School Forum found in their recent analysis of local financing options, “the wealthiest counties have six times the taxable property wealth per child available to the ten poorest counties. As a result, even though the ten poorest counties tax themselves at more than the rate of the wealthiest counties, the revenue they generate through taxation is substantially lower.”

North Carolina knows how to grow our economy through educational attainment. But a state level commitment to adequate funding and an eye to ensuring all students regardless of where they live benefit from quality educational opportunities is still needed.


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