Our changing identity

Published August 19, 2021

By Tom Campbell

While you and I were busy living our lives, doing our work, enjoying family and friends and also fighting COVID, North Carolina was changing. Not so fast that most of us could tell, but definitive and measurable change just the same. We saw proof of our changing state last week when the US Census Bureau released the results of the 2020 census. The cliff note summary is that we are older, browner and more urban than in either 2010 or 2000.
Before any analysis, a word of caution. The reported 2020 population of 10,439,388 is actually about 100,000 fewer than demographers projected. This census was conducted during the height of the COVID crisis. For the first time we were asked to report our data online. Several times we were warned of the low percentage of people reporting. The field work that was supposed to fill in the gaps of those who hadn’t reported online was late starting and finally halted before completion. Further, the way we were asked to self-report our race was different. Bottom line: We can have confidence in the trends but understand exact numbers may be under or overcounted.
Let’s look at the big picture. The median age in our state has gone from 25.5 in 1960 to 39.1 years in 2020. Some 16.7 percent of us are over 65. We are also less white. In 2000 our white population was 70.2 percent. By 2010, it declined to 65.3 and in 2020 is reported at 60.5 percent. The fastest growing segment is Hispanic, increasing from 4.7 to 10.7 percent over the period.
51 of our 100 counties lost population in a decade when we gained 903,905 residents. 9 of the 10 counties that shrank the most are in Eastern Carolina and 9 counties have majority- minority populations. 78 percent of the growth was in the Mecklenburg and Wake metro areas, with Wake becoming the most populous county. Coastal counties also showed increases.
Not only has the population continued to shift to urban and suburban areas but this will also result in a political power shift. Our legislature is charged with using this data to redraw congressional and legislative districts to reflect where people live. We gained a 14th congressional seat, so if divided equally each district should contain 746,711 people. All but two current districts exceed that number so expect big changes in congressional districts when lawmakers present new maps. We will be watching how lawmakers reconfigure the state’s two majority-minority districts, the 1st represented by G.K. Butterfield and the 12th represented by Alma Adams. And while the new data didn’t provide age specifics the advancing age of our population will yield more gray power issues. Politicians know the over 60 group votes in higher numbers than any other.
Forget all the clamor over the state budget. The bigger and, perhaps more significant drama unfolding this year will be revealed when congressional and legislative maps are revealed. Current congressional maps are drawn to favor Republicans by a 10-3 margin and both House and Senate districts are drawn so as to elect more from the GOP. Much of their strength comes from rural counties, the ones that have lost population. Can we expect another round of gerrymandered districts like we saw in 2010?  If so, expect lawsuits upon lawsuits and the likelihood of once again having to redraw maps two or three times.
North Carolina changed and we will experience even more changes in the future. Over recent months big employers pledged to bring large numbers of jobs to our state. The new jobs, coupled with normal in-migration from other states means our state will have increased demands on our governments, transportation, health services, education and other sectors.
To make sure our identity change doesn’t turn into an identity crisis we need to plan today for tomorrow’s North Carolina. Our prayer is that leadership at state and local levels will emerge to meet the exciting opportunities and challenges that lay ahead.