R-C area population shows decline in updated census data

Published 4:57 pm Tuesday, May 9, 2023

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Births, deaths, and migration are the driving factors to whether population will increase or decrease each year. It appears that deaths have the biggest impact on those numbers here in the four-county Roanoke-Chowan area, but people moving out of the county are also an important factor.

The United States Census Bureau recently released updated population estimates and other data for 2020 through 2022. The data shows a population decrease in Bertie, Gates, Hertford, and Northampton counties.

Gates County – the smallest locally in terms of population – also had the smallest percentage change in its population, with a decrease of only 0.9 percent between April 2020 and July 2022. It was ranked 96 out of 100 counties in terms of population.

The county’s estimated population in July 2020 was 10,448. By July 2021, that number was estimated to be 10,403. The most recent estimate from July 2022 showed a slight decrease to 10,383 residents.

Like other local counties, Gates County had more deaths than births, with a natural change decrease of 135 people. But in contrast, Gates County’s migration numbers (tracking those moving in and out of a county) were a net gain of 38 people.

No other local counties had a positive net migration total.

“I think Gates County is geographically positioned such that we’ve become a bedroom community for employers across the state line in Virginia,” said Gates County Manager Scott Sauer about why more people are choosing to live in the county.

He noted that Gates is ranked as a “Tier 2” county by the NC Dept. of Commerce and the household median income is over $57,000. Other surrounding counties are ranked at a lower tier and a lower median income.

“In Gates County, I think there’s a concerted effort to look toward opportunities to enhance our ability to attract workers, young professionals, medical personnel, and more,” he stated.

Sauer referenced the Merchants Commerce Center as one example of those efforts. He also mentioned building more housing as a priority as well.

“I think the population decline is indicative of a regional experience that touches many counties in this part of the state. The population struggle is real,” he emphasized.

While population is on the decline, Hertford County still continues to be the most populous in the R-C area and is ranked 79 out of North Carolina’s 100 counties in terms of population.

The estimated population as of July 1, 2020 was 21,470. By July 2021, the number was estimated to be 21,172. And the most recent estimate – as of July 1, 2022 – dropped Hertford County’s population numbers to 20,875.

In the time period from April 2020 to July 2022, Hertford County’s population decreased by 3.1 percent.

According to the Census Bureau data, the biggest decline came from natural change – which is based on the number of births and deaths. Estimates showed 383 more deaths than births in Hertford County during that time period. The county also saw its population decline based on a net migration loss of 294 people.

“The implications of a declining population without a proactive plan to address the issue may have the potential to impact every aspect of a community’s viability,” said Hertford County Manager David Cotton. “The Hertford County Board of Commissioners is keenly aware of the need to address the population trends.”

Cotton explained that the Board is focusing on out-migration as a top priority. The 18-29 age group (and, more broadly, the 18-44 group) are the ones most likely to leave.

“The commissioners have astutely prioritized investing in economic development, job creation, and quality of life as a means to entice individuals in these age groups to remain, return, and choose to call Hertford County home,” Cotton continued.

Specifically, the county is working with Roanoke-Chowan Community College, Hertford County Public Schools, NC Department of Commerce, and local businesses to boost economic development with a ready workforce. They also recently secured a $3.5 million federal appropriation to establish a “small business incubator,” and they are using other grant funding to expand recreational opportunities and public access to the Chowan River.

For Bertie County, the Census Bureau’s population estimates rank them at 85 out of 100 counties. Between April 2020 and July 2022, the population declined an estimated 3.9 percent.

Bertie’s estimated population for July 2020 was 17,862, and then 17,425 by July 2021. The estimate for July 2022 put the county’s population at 17,240.

Net migration played the biggest factor in Bertie’s numbers, with a decrease of 362 people. Deaths also outweighed births with a natural change decrease of 311 people.

Out of all four R-C area counties, Northampton saw the largest percentage decrease in population, dropping by 4 percent between April 2020 and July 2022.

The county’s estimated population in July 2020 was 17,435. By July 2021, that number had dropped to 17,093. The most recent estimate, as of July 2022, saw the county’s estimated population decrease to 16,779. That number puts Northampton County at 86 out of 100 counties in terms of population.

Northampton County’s population decrease was largely due to natural change, where deaths outnumbered births by 422 people. Migration, however, also played a role with an estimate of 271 people moving away.

County Manager Julian Phillips acknowledged that a high population of senior citizens as well as younger people moving away to larger communities played a role in the decline. He also noted that this can affect things like economic growth when grant awards are based on certain population numbers.

Regionally, some neighboring counties also have shrinking populations while others are seeing an increase.

Halifax County showed an estimated decrease by 1.6 percent, and Edgecombe County was similar with a 1.2 percent decrease. Martin County’s estimated decrease was a little more pronounced at 2.4 percent. Natural change played the biggest part of the decreasing population numbers, with more deaths occurring than births in those counties.

Nearby Chowan County, though small in terms of area, saw an estimated 1.7 percent increase in population over the same time period. Their numbers were boosted by a large number of people moving to the county.

To the south, Pitt County’s population continues to grow, with an estimated gain of 1.9 percent. From April 2020 to July 2022, the county saw net gains in both migration and births.

The US Census Bureau releases population estimates annually. Those numbers are used for federal funding allocations, for community development, to aid business planning, as denominators for statistical rates, and much more.