North Carolina’s Growth Hides Big Problem for Smaller Counties

The streets of rural Black Mountain, NC. Growth in North Carolina's cities has overshadowed declining population and economy in some of NC's rural areas. (Shutterstock)

By Billy Ball

March 8, 2022

Massive growth in Charlotte and Raleigh is hiding real pain for many of North Carolina’s rural counties. 

North Carolina is growing. But not everyone here is benefitting from it. 

Researchers at the progressive Carolina Forward wrote this week about how the state’s overall growth — both in population and its economy — is masking the struggles of North Carolina’s rural counties. 

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If you live in rural areas, you’re more likely to live in a stagnant economy. You might find it harder to get jobs or a livable wage or access to health care. You’re more likely to live in poverty or in an underfunded school system — which makes attracting employers more difficult. 

As the group noted, more than 40% of the state’s growth from 2010 to 2020 was in its two largest counties, or in the Charlotte and Raleigh areas. Indeed, more than half of the state’s counties reported population decreases in the last Census. You won’t catch that detail in the real estate brochures. 

North Carolina's Growth Hides Big Problem for Smaller Counties

Economic growth across the state’s other 98 counties is lopsided too. 

Wake and Mecklenburg counties made up for about 50% of North Carolina’s growth in gross domestic product, or GDP, in the last decade. Flashback to high school: GDP is a key measure of an area’s total value of goods and services. It’s how states and countries compare themselves economically.

And it’s clear that the economy in Charlotte, Raleigh, and other urban areas in North Carolina is nothing like the economy out in the country. 

North Carolina's Growth Hides Big Problem for Smaller Counties

The progressive advocates at Carolina Forward blamed some of the gaps on the GOP-controlled legislature, which has opposed Medicaid expansion, underfunded public school systems, and blocked municipal broadband that rural counties could otherwise use to secure high-speed internet in rural counties


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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