Fast-growing North Carolina Faces an Identity Crisis
Affluent urban and suburban neighborhoods while poor rural areas seethe?
North Carolina in the 2020s is at a crossroads. No longer Andy Griffith’s “Mayberry,” no longer dominated by natives from small towns with an agricultural heritage, it must decide what it now is and what it wants to be. It now competes with northern industrial states to be among the most populous in the nation.
Is bigger better? In becoming one of America’s largest states, is North Carolina losing its soul, or forsaking the values that make North Carolina special?
A state with a long history of “cheap land, cheap labor, and a state government eager to foster a pro-business, anti-union climate,” as the Almanac of American Politics observed, “it and South Carolina vie for the least unionized states.” But in urban and suburban areas, real estate is no longer cheap, and wages are not keeping up with inflation. With the acute housing shortage, expected to last into the 2030s, younger generations may be priced out of real estate and even rental markets in urban and suburban areas. To find something affordable, they may have to settle for long commutes using very expensive gasoline, unless and until they can afford electric cars.
A Very Different Place From the 1980s
When I moved back to the state in 2005 after two decades away, residents joked that Cary, near Raleigh, stood for “Containment Area for Relocated Yankees.” The acronym is no longer a joke. The Yankees have not been contained. Natives no longer dominate the state.
When I was in my twenties in the 1980s, if my wife and I could save a few thousand dollars, we could qualify for a mortgage. We bought a two-story, three-bedroom house in downtown Raleigh on a double-lot valued at $55,000, with a monthly payment of $400 on household income of slightly more than $30,000. A couple today would have to save at least $100,000 to purchase the same property now valued at $730,000, and be prepared to make monthly payments of $2,904, according to Zillow.
North Carolina’s Pro-Business Strategy Has Been Enormously Successful
Take Chatham, the county where I live, just south of Chapel Hill, west of Durham and Raleigh. It is being transformed before my eyes from largely rural to suburban if not urban. I hope this is NOT Chatham’s skyline in my lifetime! (It looks more like Dubai’s skyline.)
In the nearby Research Triangle Park, Tech giant Apple is investing $1 billion and creating 3,000 jobs.
You’d think with all this job growth and traffic congestion that commuter rail would become an option, but a Durham-Chapel Hill light rail project fell through in 2019. After Apple’s announced expansion in 2021, a commuter-rail project connecting Durham and Raleigh is in the planning stages.
Legacy and Futuristic Industries
While North Carolina’s historic industries — tobacco, textiles, and furniture — have declined, they still exist. New industries such as biotech, pharmaceuticals, aerospace and defense, and clean energy are moving up. (See the profiles of major industries from the NC Department of Commerce.)
The state’s Hispanic population grew by 40 percent from 2010 to 2020, the largest numeric increase of any racial/ethnic group in the state, now 10 percent of the overall population, according to Carolina Demography.
“While 8 percent of the state’s total population is foreign-born, immigrants make up a significant share of North Carolina’s labor force. One-third of all residents working in farming, fishing, and forestry occupations are immigrants, as well as one-fifth of residents working in computer and math sciences,” according to the American Immigration Council.
About three percent of NC’s population is undocumented. You’d think that with full employment (3.5%) and severe labor shortages, there would be pressure on Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform so that more people can work legally. But North Carolina’s Republicans in Congress are mainly ranting about “illegals” and blaming President Biden for the “immigration crisis” which Congress has failed to act on for decades.
North Carolina’s Population Doubled Between 1970 and 2020, From 5.1 Million to 10.6 Million
It grew by nearly 10 percent from 2010 to 2020, to become the ninth largest state, with 10.7 million people, overtaking Michigan, with 9.9 million. It will eventually overtake Ohio, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, which are losing population.
The fastest growing counties 2010-2020 bordered the cities of Raleigh, Wilmington, and Charlotte, meaning once small towns and rural areas are becoming decidedly suburban, and bedroom communities: Johnston experienced 27.9% growth; Brunswick grew by 27.2%; and Cabarrus grew by 26.8%.
Counties with cities grew significantly over the decade: Wake (Raleigh) 22.6%, Mecklenburg (Charlotte) 21.3% Durham 18.4%, Orange (Chapel Hill) 11.1%, New Hanover (Wilmington) 11%, Guilford (Greensboro) 9.7%, Buncombe (Asheville) 9.4%, and Forsyth (Winston-Salem) 9.1%.
I expect Chatham and the other counties bordering the Triangle, the Triad, and Charlotte to make the fast-growth list 2020-2030.
No Longer A Leader in Public Education
North Carolina used to pride itself on being the education state, with strong public schools and some of the best, and most economical higher-education institutions in the nation.
Investments in public schools declined per capita 2010-2020, and North Carolina is now ranked 33, below average. The quality of public education varies widely from school to school, and from county to county. And it shows in the results: about 37% of North Carolinians have just a high school education, or less; 30% have some college; 20% are four-year college graduates; about 12% have a post-graduate degree.
The more-than-a-third of workers with a high school education or less are not likely to qualify for the jobs at Vinfast, Apple. or the new industries likely to expand in the future.
In terms of NC job profiles, 39.3% of jobs are currently white collar; 23.7% are blue collar; and 37% are in sales and service.
51 Out of 100 Counties Are Losing Population
Outside urban and suburban areas, North Carolina is hurting economically. A majority of the state’s 100 counties — the rural areas — are losing population and shrinking economically. The counties furthest from urban areas — in the far south, the far east, the far north and the far west corners of the state are in the worst shape, with the highest levels of poverty, as high as 29%. (See map)
I was saddened to see my native county, Scotland on that list, and its county seat, Laurinburg number four on this one:
North Carolina’s a great state, but it “has some issues, that’s for sure,” says the narrator, Nick Johnson, a businessman, Youtube.com star, and Internet entrepreneur who lives in the state. “The old North state has poverty, crime and drugs just like anywhere in this country. Most of this state’s trouble areas share similar things - shootings, welfare, ghetto tracts, and not a lot of opportunities for young families to get started. Nor are they places that you should retire.”
Actually, violent crime per capita is significantly less than it was in the 1980s.
I will (defensively) take exception to the idea that Laurinburg is not a place to retire to and there’s nothing to do there. Scotia Village is a wonderful, economical retirement community; Cypress Bend Vineyard near Wagram is a beautiful setting, has Jazzy Fridays, live music every week; Deercroft is a golfing community with Lake Johnston for fishing, swimming, and kayaking.
In 2017, returning from the deserts of the Arabian peninsula, I reflected on the stark beauty of my home county.
Nick Johnson declares Kinston the worst place to live in North Carolina, followed by Lumberton, and Fayetteville. But Fayetteville is growing, and is home to the Cape Fear Regional Theater, as well as Fort Bragg, soon to be renamed Fort Liberty.
Rocky Mount, High Point, Winston-Salem, Salisbury, Albemarle, Whiteville, and Durham also make his list.
I haven’t been to most of these places in a long time, but if Johnson drills deeper, he might find that each has its charms. I lived in Durham for a couple of years, and while my first impression was that it was rough, I came to like it a lot better than Raleigh. It has a funky coolness to it, isn’t as stuffy or officious as Raleigh, the state capital.
My son lives in Winston-Salem. I was impressed by Winston-Salem’s Renewal As Exemplified By My Aunt’s Apartment in Old Salem, Now a B&B.
A lot of the towns on Johnson’s list may actually be on the verge of renewal as more people move to them, if there’s visionary local leadership, if the tax base improves, and if citizens actually engage and participate in that renewal rather than sit passively by, zoned out on technology, expecting others to improve their communities for them.
Granted, Mr. Johnson’s critique is a reality-check to all the national hype about North Carolina as a perfect place to move to. And he’s probably right that a Youtube.com video trumpeting small-town assets will not get nearly the views as one labeled “10 Places in North Carolina You Should Never Move To,” which as of this writing has 2.2 million views.
North Carolina’s identity crisis will come to a head in 2024 when Republican lieutenant governor Mark Robinson likely goes up against the Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein for governor. There couldn’t be a starker contrast. But more on that later.