Prosperity Watch (Issue 49, No. 3)

May 20, 2015

There is much talk about the challenges facing rural North Carolina, including declining industry and population, and elevated economic hardship. However, the positive role that immigrants are playing in rural communities across North Carolina is a key asset and opportunity that is often overlooked. As workers, neighbors and entrepreneurs, North Carolina’s immigrants are revitalizing main streets, supporting a vibrant civic life and working at many of the critical jobs that help people through their day.

National research has pointed to the positive and powerful role of immigration in rural areas. The Carsey Institute found that immigration has contributed disproportionately to the growth in non-metropolitan population growth since 1990, offsetting declining native populations in many places. More recent analysis by researchers out of Mississippi State University found that counties with higher concentrations of foreign-born residents in rural counties had higher per capita incomes.

North Carolina has experienced tremendous growth in its immigrant population over the past 25 years. In 1990, the highest concentrations of people born outside of the United States was 3% or greater in Mecklenburg, Durham, Onslow, Cumberland, Wake, and Orange counties. By 2009-2013, the most recent year for which data is available, the highest concentrations of immigrants at the county level were 10% or higher in Chatham, Lee, Duplin, Wake, Orange, Mecklenburg, and Durham counties.

Since 2010, 47 North Carolina counties that have experienced natural population decline or stagnation. Of these counties, 44 have benefited from the positive in-migration of immigrants to offset in part the combined effect of more deaths than births and movement of residents to other places. For rural counties in particular immigration has kept the population in many counties from collapsing. Without immigrants, many rural counties would have seen their populations drop as deaths outnumbered births and people moved into urban areas.

The importance of immigrants, however, is not just in staving off population decline. It is in their potential to make economic contributions that boost the broader economy. Immigrants in North Carolina are more likely to be prime working-age (84.8% compared to 61.3% for native-born North Carolinians) and engaged in the labor force (70.8% compared to 61.6% for the native-born population). While representing 7.5% of the population, immigrants own more than 20% of Main Street businesses in North Carolina.

All of this means that immigrants are playing an essential role in the long-term economic viability of many rural communities. One solution to the challenges in rural counties — which should no longer be overlooked — is a more welcoming position focused on integrating immigrants into communities.