N.C.: A State of Change
You can look at North Carolina as a collection of dichotomies: rural-urban, white-black, conservative-progressive, Republican-Democrat, rich-poor, Old South-New South.
And no doubt, the state has tensions, contrasts and polarities that shape its culture, economy and politics.
As Southerners are wont to do, many North Carolinians have preferred to see reality not so much as it is but as their mind's eye remembers it and still perceives it. Yet as the state has grown in population and as its economy has diversified, it has emerged a more complex civil society, one that defies time-worn dichotomies. Over the last quarter of a century, it has become a modern American mega-state, projected to continue growing robustly over the next two decades.
We could have seen it coming. After all, the North Carolina of the early 21st century is the product of far-sighted decisions by public officials, of aggressive entrepreneurship by business leaders, of catalytic investments by a strong philanthropy sector and, to be sure, of the sometimes painful pressures exerted by technology advances, demographic change, and globalization.
In the half-century after World War II, the transformation of North Carolina came not in one or two dramatic strokes, but as an accumulation of sometimes unrelated policies and day-to-day decisions. The transformation resulted from:
-- The GI Bill that sent young adults to college who otherwise wouldn't have gone.
-- Development of a community college system that provides work force training.
-- The collapse of the Jim Crow structure of racial segregation.
-- Development of Research Triangle Park.
-- The North Carolina Fund, which fought poverty.
-- The liberalization of banking laws at a time when energetic banking executives were ready to expand.
-- A persistence in building strong public universities; from the economic forces that undermined the three-legged stool of tobacco, textiles and furniture; and from the development of water, road and airport infrastructures.
We should have seen it coming. Now we have to understand it to see more clearly how to deal with it. We must respond to the stresses of change, to understand how to bring more people into the winner's circle of success, to build community with so many recent arrivals in our midst, and to carve pathways for upward mobility for people on the wrong side of the widening income-and-wealth gap.
North Carolina is headed toward a population of 9.5 million people in 2010, and the Census Bureau projects that the Tar Heel State will become the nation's 7th largest with a population of more than 12 million by 2030.
Three streams of people moving from one place to another have reshaped the population landscape of North Carolina:
(1) Well-educated, mostly affluent white Americans have come to North Carolina to work and to retire.
(2) The historic out-migration of black Southerners has reversed. Now more black Americans move to the South than to any other region, with North Carolina's major metropolitan areas being especially attractive.
(3) With Asians and Latinos drawn to job opportunities in the state, 7 percent of the people now living here were foreign-born, and 10 percent of residents five years and older speak a language other than English at home.
These streams have contributed to a dramatic departure from the traditional Tar Heel identity. For most of its life as a colony and as a state, a divide between white people and black people shaped North Carolina's economy and society. Not so long ago, almost all of the people who lived in North Carolina had been born here, both blacks and whites.
Now, however, North Carolina pulls in people from around the United States and around the globe. Statewide, two-thirds of our people are white. Blacks account for slightly more than one-fifth of the North Carolina population, with Latinos now up to 7 percent. About 2 percent of North Carolina residents are Asian, about 1 percent American Indian. The state has transitioned from biracial to multi-cultural.
What's more, the aging of the Baby Boom generation is beginning to have a significant ripple effect on the state's economy. The number of people 65 years old and older is expected to increase from 982,000 in 2000 to 1.6 million in 2020 -- with several counties on the eastern and western flanks of the state expected to have a median age of 50 or older.
The number of residents 45 to 64 years old is projected to leap from 1.8 million to 2.75 million -- meaning that the state's economy will depend more on older workers and will require blacks and Latinos to replace white baby-boomers as they age out of the work force.
Since the 2000 census, the population has grown by 10 percent, from 8 million people to 8.8 million. The number of people 45 to 64 years old has grown by 21 percent. By contrast, the number of residents between 25 and 44 years old has increased by only 2 percent. In 40 counties, the number of people of this prime working age has declined.
A society -- whether in the form of a nation, a state, or a locality -- either moves forward, stands still or slides backward. Each creates a set of stresses or poses challenges to public policy making. Given the choice of growth, stagnation, or decline, most North Carolinians no doubt would choose growth -- for growth signifies a robust economy that expands job opportunities that attract people.
Still, rapid growth creates congestion on highways, imposes costs on current residents to build new schools, makes it difficult to provide affordable housing for working families, and widens the gap between the affluent and the people of modest means.
What's more, many newly arrived residents come, not surprisingly, without memory of how North Carolina got to be what it is. As a result, growth-related issues have emerged in the form of pressure to retreat on school desegregation efforts and to amend the state's flexible annexation policy that has allowed cities to absorb development in a manner that minimizes city-suburban division.
Noting that eight out of 10 Americans live in cities, suburbs and counties that form metropolitan areas, the Brookings Institution has proclaimed the United States a "MetroNation." North Carolina has joined the trend, and it has done so quickly. How North Carolinians array themselves across the physical landscape today differs dramatically from their historic, spread-out pattern of small farms, small towns, small cities.
In 1950, four million people lived in North Carolina. Thirty-two cities and towns had more than 10,000 residents, nine of which had more than 30,000 residents, and only one city, Charlotte, had more than 100,000 residents. Today, more than 4.1 million people live in the state's three largest metropolitan areas -- the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region, the Research Triangle, and the Triad.
The Census Bureau reports that 71 North Carolina counties are part of a metropolitan or "micro-politan" region. We have 17 metropolitan areas with concentrated populations greater than 100,000. In addition, there are 19 micro-politan areas with concentrated populations between 30,000 and 85,000 people.
Illustrations abound. Cary has grown from a town of 7,500 in 1970 to the state's seventh-largest city at 112,000 people. Union County, east of Charlotte, has doubled in population since 1970, and it is projected to be the state's fastest-growing county between now and 2020. Hoke County, the prototype of a distressed rural community in the Leandro education financing lawsuit, ranks just behind Union in projected rate of growth and is becoming a suburb of Fayetteville.
Of North Carolina's 100 counties, 92 are projected to gain population between now and 2020, only eight to decline. Among rural counties and small towns, projected growth ranges from modest to relatively substantial, especially in counties near metro areas. What stands out is the anticipation of continued super-charged growth not only in Wake and Mecklenburg but also in the suburban and emerging exurban counties that have become part of North Carolina's metropolitanization.
Within these sprawling "city-state" metro areas, you can find an interwoven mix of city, suburb, exurb, and even oases of ruralness. North Carolina has mostly avoided the old industrial pattern of a dense central city ringed by suburbs. In Raleigh, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Asheville, there has arisen a renewed appreciation for living, working and gathering in downtowns. But there remains a strong urge to sprawl as middle-income people seek affordable housing in exurban developments on what was once farm land.
Indeed, many North Carolinians have what might be called split identities: They work in one place, and they sleep, play, pray and vote in another place. In more than one-third of our counties, more than 40 percent of the workers -- almost all of them driving alone in an automobile -- go from their home counties to other counties to work. Even with sustained efforts to promote rural economic development, many of these commuters are residents of rural counties who have turned to the metro areas to replace lost manufacturing and agricultural jobs.
Now that large parts of North Carolina have joined "MetroNation," we confront a series of questions and challenges.
What is a community, and how do we build community in a multi-ethnic, mobile society? While North Carolina continues to fight for its rural communities, should the state now also have a metro strategy to keep its principal economic engines vital and livable? With "city-states" composed of multiple municipalities and counties, how do we govern in a democratic participatory fashion?
Passing the Torch
People follow jobs, and political power follows people. Metropolitan growth necessarily will continue to exert an influence on Tar Heel politics and governance.
By 2010, half of the seats of both houses of the General Assembly will be held by legislators representing the state's three largest metro areas. Add in the state's next four largest metro regions -- Fayetteville, Asheville, Wilmington and Greenville -- and 29 counties will claim nearly two-thirds of the legislature's seats.
The number of legislators is fixed, so growth also means that each legislator will represent more people. Currently, each House member represents 67,000 citizens, and each senator represents about 161,000. By the next round of redistricting in 2011, each House member will represent about 79,000 citizens, each senator 189,000 people.
The one-party North Carolina of much of the 20th century is a distant memory. Public offices are now determined through two-party competition -- and North Carolina reflects the partisan polarization of the United States. Still, neither Democrats nor Republicans hold an assured majority. More than 1.2 million registered -- out of 5.8 million -- list themselves as "unaffiliated."
Growth and mobility also influence how -- and whether -- leadership develops. Not so long ago, the undergraduate dormitories and law schools of our major universities served as incubators of life-long political alliances and leadership. Now, as the enrollment of universities has swelled, college students, as well as recent graduates, who want to involve themselves in the democratic life of their state, find it difficult to build connections.
Our leadership development mechanisms do not assure a steady supply of forward-thinking leaders, and we face a challenge in how to develop and nurture the next generation of leaders to whom the torch will soon be passed.
Andrew Holton is assistant director for research and Ferrel Guillory is director of the Program on Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill. This essay originally appeared in the Annual Report of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and in the Program's Carolina Context series of white papers. Since its inception in 1997, the UNC Program on Public Life has provided "research brokerage" that connects the work of scholars to the work of elected officials as well as nonprofit, business, journalistic and community leaders in North Carolina.
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