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Uneven Growth for Western North Carolina Population and Diversity Since 2010

By Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press 

Thousands more people are living in Western North Carolina than were here during the 2010 census, with minority ethnic group populations especially increasing, according to the Carolina Public Press’ analysis of new U.S. Census estimates released last month.

2013-04-wnc-population_featuredIn the 19 county region of WNC, the population increased from 919,515 in April 2010 to 940,963 in July 2011. That’s an increase of 20,948 residents is more than the equivalent of squeezing in the populations of Graham and Clay counties from 2010 an extra time. Overall it represents about a 2.3 percent increase during the five-year period.

But the growth was markedly uneven. The region’s largest counties, Buncombe and Henderson, had the largest gains. But the next two largest, Burke and Rutherford, saw stagnant economies drive residents away for sizable declines.

Other counties gaining population were Clay, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain and Watauga. Other decliners were Avery, Graham, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk and Yancey.

Following are the ranks for the 2015 population estimates in Western North Carolina by county with the percentage of growth or decline since 2010 in parenthesis:

  • Buncombe, 253,178 (+6.24 percent)
  • Henderson, 112,655 (+5.54 percent)
  • Burke, 88,842 (-2.28 percent)
  • Rutherford, 66,390 (-2.09 percent)
  • Haywood, 59,868 (+1.41 percent)
  • Watauga, 52,906 (+3.58 percent)
  • McDowell, 44,989 (-0.02 percent)
  • Jackson, 41,265 (+2.47 percent)
  • Macon, 34,201 (+0.82 percent)
  • Transylvania, 33,211 (+0.37 percent)
  • Cherokee, 27,178 (-0.97 percent)
  • Madison, 21,139 (+1.81 percent)
  • Polk, 20,366 (-0.70 percent)
  • Avery, 17,689 (-0.61 percent)
  • Yancey, 17,587 (-1.30 percent)
  • Mitchell, 15,246 (-2.14 percent)
  • Swain, 14,434 (+3.24 percent)
  • Clay, 10,703 (+1.10 percent)
  • Graham, 8,616 (-2.76 percent)

The census also showed different trends for the ethnic makeups of each county and the region’s overall diversity.

WNC was 88.2 percent White non-Hispanic in 2010, which had dropped to 87.3 percent in 2015. While that represented a small decrease for the share of the majority group, it represented a relatively bigger percentage increase for several minority groups.

Black population

Due to historic patterns, mountainous regions of the South have been home to smaller numbers of black residents than those in low-lying areas near the coasts or in larger urban communities.

Non-Hispanic black residents made up about 4.9 percent of the region’s population in 2010, which grew slightly to 5.1 percent in 2015.

The counties with the highest non-Hispanic black proportion of their populations are Rutherford (10.8 percent), Buncombe (7.3 percent) and Burke (7.0%). Several counties with very small black populations saw statistically significant increases, including Graham, Mitchell and Swain counties where the number of black residents more than doubled, but still remains a tiny fraction of those counties populations.

Despite the overall decline in populations for about half of the WNC counties, the only counties experiencing a net loss of black residents were Cherokee County, which lost 471 black residents, and Rutherford, which lost 321.

Native American population

Native Americans make up a substantial population group in several WNC counties and a stable if smaller presence in several others, totaling 17,620 people regionally, or about 1.9 percent of the population.

The presence of Native Americans here is due primarily to descendants of Cherokees who resisted removal to Western territories (now Oklahoma) in the mid-19th century.

This includes many isolated small family groups of Cherokee descendants throughout WNC, plus the organized Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, whose territory is primarily in Swain and Jackson counties. Along with generally populous Buncombe and Henderson counties, these otherwise smaller counties are home to thousands of Native Americans. In Swain alone, the non-Hispanic Native American population is 29.1 percent.

People who identify with other Southeastern tribes, such as the Catawbas and Lumbees, are also present in some counties, as are Native Americans who have moved to the area from elsewhere.

Overall, the Native American population of WNC increased 4.8 percent since 2010, with double-digit percentage increases in Buncombe, Clay, Haywood, Henderson, McDowell, Macon, Polk, Rutherford, Swain and Watauga counties. American Indian populations dropped slightly in Avery, Cherokee and Jackson counties.

Asian and Pacific population

Asians and Pacific Islanders make up only a small percentage of the region’s population, though their numbers have grown somewhat since 2010, 18.9 percent for Asians and 14.3 percent for Pacific Islanders.

A sizeable Hmong population in Burke County gives it the highest Asian population percentage in WNC at 4.0 percent, though larger Buncombe has more actual number of Asian residents.

The Hmong are native to Laos and Vietnam, with many immigrating to the United States as refugees following the Vietnam War in the 1970s. North Carolina is home to several of the nation’s largest Hmong communities.

Other Asian groups include Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, (Asian) Indians, Thais and Vietnamese. The Census categories may be ambiguous for some nationalities, such as Filipinos, Malaysians and Indonesians, who may reasonably identify as Asian or Pacific Islander.

The existence of a substantial Hispanic population for both categories suggests that Filipinos especially are uncertain about which group to identify under.

Hispanic population

The Census has a complicated system for counting Hispanic residents in general, recognizing that people may be of any of the other groups (White, Black, American Indian, Asian or Pacific Islander) and also have Spanish surnames or ancestry that includes people with Spanish surnames.

The numbers above have included only non-Hispanic representatives of the various groups.

The overall Hispanic population of WNC grew substantially, about 12.6 percent since 2010. The largest percentage growth occurred in Graham County (52.3 percent growth), but the largest numbers of additional Hispanic residents were heavily in Buncombe County, such saw a 2,385-person increase in its Hispanic population. No county saw a net decrease in its Hispanic population.

The region now has a roughly 6.0 percent Hispanic population, though it is spread unevenly. Henderson County has the area’s largest percentage of Hispanic residents at 10.2 percent, followed by Buncombe at 6.8 percent and Burke at 6.2 percent.

The smallest percentage Hispanic population is in Madison County, which has just 2.5 percent Hispanic.

Editor’s Note: Carolina Public Press defines Western North Carolina as a 19-county region that includes Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Swain, Macon, Jackson, Haywood, Transylvania, Polk, Rutherford, Henderson, Buncombe, Madison, Mitchell, McDowell, Burke, Yancey, Avery, and Watauga counties. Many earlier CPP articles used a 18-county definition of Western North Carolina that did not include Burke County. Other media and government regional reports use a variety of different definitions for the region that typically include Ashe, Alleghany, Caldwell, Wilkes, Surry, Alexander, Cleveland, Catawba, Lincoln, Yadkin or other counties.