By on 3.27.20 in Carolina Demographics, Census 2020

The 2019 county population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau are the last set of population estimate before results of the 2020 Census are released in early 2021. Here’s what they tell us about how counties have changed in North Carolina over the past decade.

Growth and Decline

Statewide, North Carolina has maintained steady growth since the 2010 Census, but this growth has been uneven across the state: 57 counties have grown since 2010 – gaining a combined total of just over 1 million residents. Meanwhile, 43 counties have lost population since 2010, losing a combined total of 61,300 residents.

Which counties have had population growth?

Brunswick County remains the fastest-growing county in the state: its population grew by 33% between 2010 and 2019, more than triple the state growth rate (10%) over this time period. Five other counties grew more than twice as fast as the state overall: Johnston (24%), Wake (23%), Cabarrus (22%), Pender (21%), and Mecklenburg (21%).

The state’s largest urban centers—Wake (Raleigh-Cary) and Mecklenburg (Charlotte)—led the state in numeric growth: Wake gained nearly 211,000 new residents since 2010 and Mecklenburg grew by 191,000. Current population estimates have Wake leading Mecklenburg for the first time this decade: 1,111,761 to 1,110,356. Will this lead of 1,405 residents grow through 2020?

Which counties have lost population?

Four northeastern North Carolina counties have lost more than one in ten residents since 2010: Hyde (-15%), Washington (-12%), Northampton (-12%), and Bertie (-11%). The largest numeric losses were since 2010 were in the northeast and Sandhills regions: Edgecombe (-5,067), Halifax (-4,614), and Robeson (-3,604).

Where have we seen resurgent county growth?

For many counties, population losses were heaviest in the first half of the decade as we emerged from the Great Recession; these losses have abated—or reversed—in recent years with a return to suburban and exurban growth patterns. Twelve North Carolina counties with net population losses between 2010-2019 had population gains between 2018 and 2019. For most of these counties, an additional year of growth between 2019 and 2020 will not make up for the losses sustained earlier in the decade. In Cleveland and Ashe, however, the 2019 estimates suggest another year of population growth would bump them into net gains for the decade overall.

Which counties have more births than deaths?

Less than half of North Carolina counties—46—had natural increase between 2010-2019, meaning the county had more births than deaths. High levels of natural increase were concentrated in the urban core counties of Charlotte, the Triangle region, and our military communities. The top 5 counties for natural increase were:

  • Mecklenburg (78,200)
  • Wake (68,500)
  • Onslow (29,300) – Camp Lejeune (Marine Corps)
  • Cumberland (29,000) – Fort Bragg (Army)
  • Durham (21,600)

Meanwhile, many counties with large population gains experienced natural decrease or more deaths than births: Brunswick (-2,900), Henderson (-2,600), and Carteret (-1,970). These communities have appeal as retirement destinations and the influx of in-migration counterbalances population losses from natural decrease.

Which counties have seen more people move in than out?

Net migration—meaning more people moving in than moving out—has been the engine of North Carolina growth for the past 30 years. Statewide, 62 of our 100 counties had net in-migration since 2010. The largest net gains from in-migration were in Wake (140,900) and Mecklenburg (111,500) followed by Brunswick (37,700), Johnston (31,900), and Guilford (31,000).

Among the 38 counties with net out-migration since 2010, the largest net losses were in our military communities—Cumberland (-14,100) and Onslow (-10,300)—followed by Robeson (-8,300), Craven (-5,700), and Edgecombe (-5,100).

Preview of the 2020 Census?

April 1, 2020 marks Census Day, the once a decade count of all Americans. Census forms have been sent to all households and the operation to count everyone will continue through August. About a year from now, we will see the first results.

Will Wake County maintain (or increase) its edge on Mecklenburg to become the state’s largest county? Will Cleveland and Ashe see net population gains over the decade?  We don’t know yet. You can visit our 2020 Census response tracker to see how many people in each county have filled out their census forms so far.