North Carolina estimates show most counties grew from net in-migration

By Rebecca Tippett 

2021 County Population Estimates are out: What you need to know

Chapel Hill, NC – The 2021 county population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau are the first set of population estimates based on the 2020 Census. Here’s what the new data tells us about how North Carolina counties have changed in the year following the Census.

73 NC counties have grown since 2020

North Carolina grew by 112,000 people or 1.1% between April 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021, faster than the national rate of 0.1%. According to the estimates, 73 North Carolina counties grew in the 15 months following the Census.

The counties with the fastest-growth were coastal counties or Triangle suburbs: both Brunswick and Currituck had an estimated population increase of 5.5%, followed by Johnston (4.9%), Camden and Franklin (4.6%), and Pender (4.3%).

Pollard Middle School at Briar Chapel in Chatham County, NC. (photo by Gene Galin)

Other counties with growth above the state rate included:

  • Dare, Carteret, and New Hanover on the coast
  • suburbs around Mecklenburg (Lincoln, Iredell, Cabarrus, Union, and Gaston)
  • Wake County and other Triangle suburbs and exurbs (Chatham, Harnett, Granville)
  • Moore, Hoke, and Lee counties
  • The western counties of Clay, Macon, and Cherokee, as well as Yancey, Madison, and Polk

Fastest growth in coastal counties, Triangle Suburbs

Counties with estimated population losses are concentrated in the (non-coastal) east, with the counties experiencing the largest percentage losses—Bertie (-2.4%), Northampton (-2.0%), and Hyde (-1.8%)—in the northeast. Another cluster of counties with population losses—Caldwell, Surry, Wilkes, and Yadkin—is in the northwest.

84 counties had more deaths than births

Between April 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021, North Carolina had natural decrease—or more deaths than births—for the first time. This reflects the combined impacts of population aging and the pandemic, which decreased births and increased deaths. This means that the state’s population growth over this period was entirely due to more people moving into the state than moving away (net migration).

Eighty-four North Carolina counties had more deaths than births. The county with the largest difference between deaths and births was Brunswick (-1,509), a leading retirement destination, followed by Buncombe (-1,159) and Henderson (-971) in the west.

NC County Population Change and Components of Change, 2020-2021

The 16 counties with births than deaths were primarily in major metropolitan areas (Charlotte, the Triangle, and the Triad) or the military-associated counties of Onslow, Cumberland, and Hoke. While both Guilford and Forsyth had more births than deaths, the small margins—52 and 9, respectively—suggest these counties could see natural decrease later in the decade.

For four of these 16 counties—Mecklenburg, Onslow, Cumberland, and Durham—natural increase was the only source of growth; they all had estimated net out-migration. This is a common pattern for Onslow and Cumberland but represents a divergence from pre-pandemic trends for Mecklenburg and Durham.

Most counties grew from net in-migration

Seventy-nine North Carolina counties had more people move in than move away since the 2020 Census. In four of the five fastest-growing counties, net migration was either the only source of growth (Brunswick, Currituck, and Franklin) or accounted for virtually all population growth (Camden, with 2 more births than deaths). Broadly, the data suggest a potential “pandemic migration” to suburbs/exurbs and coastal/mountain counties; we’ll need more years of data to understand how much these patterns persist.

21 NC counties with net out-migration since 2020 Census

The 21 North Carolina counties with net out-migration were primarily in the eastern and Sandhills regions of the state, with two notable exceptions: Mecklenburg and Durham. Both Mecklenburg and Durham had large estimated in-flows of international migrants but even larger out-flows of individuals leaving for other counties and states.

These out-migrations contributed to slower growth for Mecklenburg (0.6%) and Durham (0.4%); both counties grew more slowly than the state overall. This contrasts with their population growth rankings last decade. Like the pandemic migration mentioned above, whether this is a single year aberration due to the pandemic or a multi-year trend is something we won’t know until we get more data.

Carolina Demography is an applied demography group located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.