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Population loss and economic decline hit rural eastern NC

July 7, 2017 / Sadaf Knight / Economy, Rural

This week, the News & Observer reported that several counties in North Carolina are experiencing significant population decline. The data, coming from a report by the UNC Carolina Population Center, shows that 41 percent of the state’s municipalities saw population losses between 2010 and 2016. Three quarters of our municipalities either lost population or grew slower than the state average since 2010.

The communities that have experienced the greatest decline in population are concentrated in the Northeast. In fact, the 10 municipalities with the largest percentage decline are located in Bertie, Northampton, and Washington Counties. In terms of numeric losses, the majority of municipalities are still in the northeast and southeast regions. Projections for these regions forecast further population decline.

The problem of population loss is one among many in these regions of North Carolina. The northeast and southeast are among the state’s most economically distressed areas. North Carolina’s ten persistent poverty counties—those that have had at least a 20 percent poverty rate over the past three decennial censuses—are all located in the northeast and southeast. As this blog showed in a previous post, these regions have also seen job losses since before the recession. These regions have also been hit more recently by Hurricane Matthew, and are struggling to recover. New analysis by the Budget & Tax Center shows that six months after the hurricane, counties hit the hardest are suffering from “anemic” job growth.

Many states are challenged with how to develop and assist rural communities. As cities grow and become more prosperous, rural areas continue to face disinvestment and economic decline. At the same time, Curbed reports that rural development funding has been cut 75 percent over the past 40 years. With fewer available resources, structural shifts in our economy, and wealth becoming increasingly concentrated, the solution for solving the challenges in rural communities will not be simple.

There are efforts being made to increase investments and spur local economic growth in rural areas. Curbed points to four organizations doing rural community development work across the country, from assisting small farms and fisheries, to providing high tech skills training to former coal miners. One of the organizations profiled, Coastal Enterprises, is also a community development financial institution (CDFI). CDFIs are particularly well positioned to work in rural communities, given our mission focus and commitment to reaching and serving markets that are underserved.

However, it will take more than the efforts of individual organizations to build a foundation for long-term sustainability in rural communities. CSBDF has made 35 percent of its small business loans in rural areas, and we have opened up offices in the northeast and southeast to deepen our roots in those communities. But we also recognize that our efforts alone will not be sufficient. We need resources and must build partnerships with other community organizations, advocates, and policy makers and, most importantly, community members, to develop new strategies for rural economic development.