Opinion: Another Way To Look At the Urban-Rural Split in North Carolina

What the numbers say about our growing cities and shrinking countryside
UNC Chapel Hill

When pundits refer to North Carolina as a “purple state,” one more or less evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, they’re misstating the case in some significant ways.

The term obscures that the state has far more Democratic registered voters than Republican, and that Republicans have near-ironclad control of the legislature. It also creates a perception that the mix is fairly even throughout the state, and it’s not—the cities are very blue and getting bluer, and the suburban, exurban, and rural areas are bright red and growing redder. It’s more accurate to describe North Carolina as a bright-red state with bright-blue polka dots where the cities are.

And here’s something else to remember: Cities are gaining people, and the rural parts are losing them. Rebecca Tippett of the Carolina Population Center at UNC Chapel Hill posted an article Monday that examined some of the demographics, and the numbers bear out what we’ve generally known for some years.

In short, the state’s core urban counties—Wake, Mecklenburg, Guilford, and Forsyth—have gained population since 2010. So have some suburban and bedroom-community counties. Who lost people? Rural and so-called “micropolitan” areas, those with small cities of between 10,000 and 50,000 at their hubs (the Hickory-Catawba Valley area is a good example).

And the data indicate that the first dynamic contributes to the other: People who move from rural counties are much more likely to stay in North Carolina than those who move from the cities. “Across North Carolina,” Tippett writes, “population growth in urban areas is fueled, in part, by net out-migration that can create population losses in rural communities.”

So what’s this mean for the state’s politics? For one thing, it underlines the imbalance of power in the General Assembly, since members from rural areas wield influence that’s way out of proportion to the number of people they represent.

For another, it provides a glimpse into possible motivation for the rash of legislative actions since 2010 that seem designed to hurt cities as much as possible—the loss of film industry incentives, extra burdens on abortion clinics, the attempted state takeover of Charlotte’s airport, and, of course, House Bill 2. If cities are gaining population and economic growth at rural areas’ expense, how much of the legislative agenda in recent years is simply a product of spite?

Categories: The Buzz