Population trends may surprise you

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RALEIGH — In 1940, some 3.6 million people lived in North Carolina, ranking the state 11th in the nation in population and first in the Southeast. Across the South as a whole, only Texas (6.4 million) was more populous.

If present trends continue, by 2040 North Carolina will have a population of about 12.7 million, ranking us seventh in the nation but only fourth in the South, after Texas (40 million), Florida (28.9 million), and, just barely, Georgia (12.8 million). By that time, more people will live in North Carolina than in Illinois or Ohio.

Surprised? Let’s see if I can surprise you again. Even as North Carolina reaches that milestone, our population-growth rate will be declining significantly. According to the projections (from the University of Virginia’s Demographics Research Group), North Carolina’s population will have risen 10.8 percent from 2010 to 2020, 10.5 percent from 2020 to 2030, and 8.4 percent from 2030 to 2040.

These increases will still outpace the average national rate, which is also projected to decline. But keep in mind that North Carolina’s growth rates have historically been far higher — 12.7 percent in the 1980s, 21.4 percent in the 1990s, and 18.5 percent in the 2000s. Indeed, if the 2020-2040 projections prove accurate, North Carolina will grow at our slowest rate since the tumultuous 1860s (7.9 percent).

Although the growth rate may decline on a percentage basis, our state is still poised to add lots of new residents — more than two million more North Carolinians by 2040. Our economies, communities, and politics will change accordingly. Some of these effects are (sort of) predictable. Others may well present us with still more surprises.

In the past, for example, policymakers assumed that population growth meant lots more children in schools and colleges, requiring massive capital expenditures to keep up with the demand for classroom space. Yet North Carolina’s school-aged population isn’t growing as rapidly as policymakers expected just a few years ago, and a higher share of those young people get their educational services in new ways — in home schools or in flexible arrangements that combine school buildings, satellite campuses, libraries, their homes, and other homes.

Even as North Carolina grows more populous, it will grow older. A lot more North Carolinians will be retired. Again, don’t make hasty assumptions. We’ll have more retirees and they’ll live longer, many into the 80s and 90s, but that doesn’t necessarily suggest our governments, households, and provider networks will collapse under the strain of caring for infirm parents and grandparents.

Tomorrow’s retirees will be far healthier than yesterday’s retirees were, on average, and as the American Enterprise Institute’s Andrew Biggs pointed out in recent congressional testimony, they’ll be better prepared financially than any previous generation of American retirees has been.

Back in 1940, the second-largest city in North Carolina wasn’t Raleigh. It was Winston-Salem. Durham, Greensboro and Asheville were also more populous than the capital city at that time. Some statistician probably predicted that Raleigh would surge, but I’m sure it came as a surprise to many North Carolinians, anyway. Rinse, repeat.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC Spin,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

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