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How is North Carolina Population Change Occurring?

U.S. Census Bureau’s latest population estimates offers the first glimpse at post-pandemic trends. Will these trends continue in North Carolina?

Author: Michael Cline, North Carolina State Demographer

Last year, North Carolina added more people than all but two states. The patterns of population change seen in the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest population estimates may give us the first glimpse at post-pandemic trends – trends that are likely to continue in the coming years. In these estimates, most counties saw natural population decrease even as most counties saw net gains in domestic and international migrants. 

Births and movers into an area increase a population’s size while deaths and movers away from that area decrease it.  As long as more people are added than subtracted, regardless of how, a population will grow. 

Demographers measure population change through two major processes or “components of change.” These are natural population change and net migration.
Natural population change is the difference between the number of births and the number of deaths. When there are more births than deaths, natural population increase occurs.  Natural population decrease occurs when deaths exceed births. 

Net migration is the difference between the number of people moving into an area and the number of people moving out. Net migration can be further broken down into net international migration (moves between another country and the United States) and net domestic migration (moves within the United States).

The following maps and descriptions provide an overview of these components of change for North Carolina counties. To compare small and large counties, the components of change are shown as rates per 1,000 people.

Components of Change

Although most North Carolina counties experienced positive change in at least one component of change, almost three quarters (72) experienced positive net migration only. Twenty-one counties – mostly urban or suburban – experienced both natural increase and positive net migration. 

Only six counties experienced both natural decrease and net out-migration. Cumberland County, home of Ft. Liberty, was the only county to experience net out-migration and natural population increase. Given the large military population, this is not surprising. Soldiers arrive at Ft. Liberty at young ages – often un-partnered and without children. By the time they leave, they may have a few children in tow.

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Natural Change

Over 100,000 North Carolinians are turning 65 years old every year and, as a result, the size of the older population is increasing at a rate more than double that of the population as a whole. Unfortunately, with increases in the number of older adults comes increases in the number of deaths. The number of North Carolinians dying every year has steadily increased and will continue to increase in the near future. As a result, in many counties today there are more deaths than births, or natural decrease. 

Seventy-eight counties experienced natural decrease between 2022 and 2023, with Mitchell County (in the west, at -10.3 per 1,000 people) and Pamlico County (at -10.1 per 1,000 people) having the largest rates of natural decrease. During the same period, 22 counties experienced natural population increase – mainly North Carolina’s largest counties and counties with a large military installation located within them or nearby. The highest rates of natural increase were in Onslow County (11 per 1,000 people) and Hoke County (8.4 per 1,000 people).

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Domestic Migration

Since 2020, we have seen fewer North Carolinians moving to other states and more people moving into North Carolina. These patterns can be seen at the county level as well, with a net gain of migrants to most counties in the state. Domestic net migration accounted for 70% of the state’s total population growth between 2022 and 2023. Domestic net migration accounts for almost all growth for many North Carolina counties – or at least is helping to slow population decline because of natural decrease. During this period, 91 counties saw more people moving into their county than leaving for another county in North Carolina or another state – with the highest rates occurring in major retirement destinations such as Brunswick County (at 49.8 per 1,000 people) and Pender County (at 41.7 per 1,000 people). Only nine counties experienced net out-migration – with the highest rates occurring in Hyde County (-6.9 per 1,000 people) and Cumberland County (-6.1 per 1,000 people).

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International Migration

Between 2022 and 2023, about 21% of North Carolina’s population growth occurred because of net immigration. These movements between the United States and other countries include not only foreign nationals moving here for various reasons, which may keep them here briefly or for a long time, but also American citizens returning from being away (such as Marines re-assigned from Okinawa to Cherry Point). The U.S. Census Bureau estimated at least some level of net international migration for 88 counties. The highest rates of net immigration occurred in Mecklenburg County (7.6 per 1,000 people) and Durham County (7.0 per 1,000 people). 

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These latest population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show a new reality – migration will be the key to future growth of North Carolina and its counties.

Note: The U.S. Census Bureau publishes annual population estimates each March. These population estimates provide detail information about the components of population change. The State Demographer in the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management also produces county population estimates annually that are published in September. Although the results are similar, the State Demographer’s offices estimates incorporate different methods and more current data.