Demographic Changes from the Lens of a Demographer Q & A with Dr. Rebecca Tippett

Strategic Assessment

For the past several years, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation has recognized that communities across the state are changing in rapid and fundamental ways. In May 2016, ZSR embarked on a yearlong strategic assessment process to better understand trends and changes happening across the state as well as to examine and evaluate our current approach to grantmaking and broader work, to ensure we are best serving North Carolina communities moving forward. In May 2017, we plan to release a new strategic vision.

On October 4 and 5, 2016, ZSR convened a diverse group of data experts from across North Carolina to understand the implications of the trends and changes we are seeing; to learn what the numbers conceal or obscure; to see how they connect and crossover; to disaggregate the data across the state and explore what is known or expected about the disproportionate influence of those trends in different places; to hear from the experts about where they believe the inflection points are that ZSR needs to pay attention to; and to learn what it is about the implications that gets them up in the morning or keeps them up at night.

Among those we brought together was Dr. Rebecca Tippett, Director of Carolina Demography at the Carolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. In her current role, Dr. Tippett is responsible for translating demographic and economic data into specific, usable information and knowledge to inform decision-making, evaluation, and policy.

We asked Dr. Tippett to provide us with a high level overview of some of the more significant trends she is seeing in North Carolina as well as the impacts and implications of those trends.

1. What are some of the most significant trends/changes being seen across North Carolina in recent years?

One of the biggest demographic stories since 1990 has been growth. Between 1990 and 2015, North Carolina’s population grew by 50 percent, gaining more than three million residents. With more than 10 million residents, North Carolina is now the ninth most populous state in the nation. Although the pace of growth has slowed in recent years, North Carolina continues to grow faster than the nation.

This growth has been fueled by migration of individuals from other states and countries, which has significantly increased the diversity of the state. In addition to growth and migration, another major trend has been urbanization, with growth increasingly concentrated in the state’s urban centers.

2. What are the implications of some of these trends?

One of the biggest implications of growth and urbanization is an increased demand for regional approaches. Individuals’ lives do not conform perfectly to existing municipal boundaries, and we have seen significant spillover impacts of population growth in the past few decades.

3. How are those trends playing our differently in various communities or various parts of the state?

Many of the changes that are taking place in North Carolina are not occurring evenly across the state. North Carolina’s largest counties – Wake and Mecklenburg – are increasingly driving state growth. In 2015, they accounted for just over 20 percent of state population, but 47 percent of North Carolina growth since 2010. While these counties and others have been booming, 48 North Carolina counties – nearly one in two – have lost population since 2010.

4. Why is understanding the data so important?

High quality data can help us understand the limitations of our knowledge. Many people think they have a pretty good understanding of what is going on in their community – and they often do. But, our understanding is limited by who we know and interact with or where we go. Data augments these qualitative impressions and serves to challenge – or uphold – what may be conventional wisdom about a place. Looking at data can help us gain a broader perspective, which allows us to better identify future challenges and opportunities.

5. As it pertains to your work, what gets you up in the morning?

Two things are on my mind these days: First, what will the trajectory of second generation Hispanics be in North Carolina? The state saw a significant increase in the size of its Hispanic population between 1990 and 2010; today, a large portion of the child population are the children of these immigrants. This group is just starting age into adulthood. Second, we are beginning to feel the impacts of population aging, and these impacts will only increase in the coming decades. Both of these trends will play out very differently across the state’s 100 counties.