As a Tar Heel born and bred, stories about what is going on in our state jump out to me. Two such stories recently caught my eye. They reflect not specific events, what is sometimes called spot news, but trends that shape North Carolina’s present and its future.
Native North Carolinians of my generation remember a state of small towns where many of us lived our entire lives. Even Raleigh and Charlotte were not the metropolises they have become, sporting populations of 65,000 and 134,000 respectively in 1950. Tar Heel Andy Griffith romanticized and memorialized this North Carolina when he created Mayberry, where people were always kind and the right way always won the day.
Those days, romanticized and otherwise, are long gone.
The UNC Carolina Population Center released data earlier this month showing that 43 percent of North Carolina’s population was born somewhere else, including 49 percent of adults.
Says demographer Jessica Stanford of the center, “This growth reflects how attractive North Carolina is to migrants of all ages with a range of educational, employment and retirement opportunities.” U.S. Census data show that North Carolina remains the ninth most populous state, with 10.3 million folks now calling North Carolina home.
All counties, however, are not equal in the migration department.
Three quarters of Currituck County’s residents came from elsewhere, probably because of its coastal location just south of Virginia Beach. Brunswick County, once a sleepy place in southeastern North Carolina just north of Myrtle Beach, now has a non-native population of 53 percent, including many retirees, and Union County, now a bedroom community for Charlotte, reports that 51 percent of its residents were born outside North Carolina.
The military has brought thousands of non-natives to our community as well.
The flip side of this urban change is North Carolina’s rural areas, where people tend to stay put. Edgecombe County, in eastern North Carolina and whose large town is Rocky Mount, has the highest percentage of Tar Heels born and bred at 80 percent. Patterns are similar throughout rural North Carolina, both east and west.
The demographic and economic divide between urban and rural areas of our state and nation is not new, but it is growing and is profoundly threatening to North Carolina as we have known it. If you subscribe to a “rising tide floats all boats” philosophy, then you can see how a booming knowledge-based economy concentrated in our urban hubs coupled with fading economic models of manufacturing and small farming in our rural areas threaten our overall well-being.
Rural communities face significant challenges in funding public education, handling high unemployment, improving access to high quality medical care, securing access to high-speed internet connections, and creating transportation options to get to more prosperous urban areas, among many.
These are not issues to be solved by local economic developers or creative educators who can make do without financial resources. These are issues that require thoughtful and innovative state and federal government policies, not just robbing Peter’s urban areas to pay Paul’s rural bills.
They are also issues to consider and to put to candidates running for Congress and the North Carolina General Assembly in 2018. If they do not see the urban-rural divide as an issue and have some ideas to address it, then they probably should not be setting public policy and spending public money.
State Sen. Erica Smith, who represents eight rural counties in northeastern North Carolina, put it bluntly to The News and Observer. Smith said, “We are not going to be the thriving state that we can be until we close this gap.”
She is correct.
The myth of Mayberry notwithstanding, life is composed of change, and North Carolina is in the throes of significant transition, both positive and negative. Not addressing it serves no one, neither Tar Heels born and bred nor people who chose to come here for whatever reasons.