The Raleigh-Durham area ranks sixth and the Charlotte metro area ranks 30th in the “150 Best Places to Live” list released this week by US News and World Report. Once a weekly print newsmagazine, now an online publication, US News regularly fuels Americans’ appetite for rankings — with ratings of universities, high schools, hospitals, automobiles, and more.
It’s no surprise that people want to see how their state, city, or school stacks up against their national peers. But, of course, the rankings are subjective, with scores based on factors chosen by the publication. To score metro areas, US News used data on labor market employment and wages, housing affordability and quality of life, with high school students’ college readiness accounting for 20% of the index.
As the Best Places rankings were the subject of buzzing notice online and on TV, the Brookings Institution has released a new census portrait of America’s largest metropolitan areas with results that further define the politics and politics, the changes and challenges of modern North Carolina. This is a further reminder that North Carolina, once characterized as a “valley of humility between two mountains of vanity,” now ranks among the megastates, with two powerful regional economic engines, less competitive than complementary.
Brookings demographer William H. Frey places the Raleigh and Charlotte areas in the context of the 56 metropolitan areas with populations over one million. Frey’s article uses the census definition of a Raleigh-Cary metropolitan area, with a population of 1.3 million, which includes Johnston and Franklin counties. The census places Durham and Chapel Hill in a separate metropolitan area. Metro Charlotte, with a population of 2.6 million, spans eight North Carolina counties and two South Carolina counties.
In the 1990s, writes Frey, immigration and millennial births spurred national population growth, especially in the Sun Belt. It includes Raleigh and Charlotte along with Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Denver and Phoenix as the “fastest growing areas of the 1990s.”
From 2000 to 2020, he says, national growth slowed as the population aged. Yet, during the 2010-2020 decade, “six of the fastest growing metropolitan areas were located in the traditional Sun Belt magnetic states of Texas (Austin, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio) and Florida ( Orlando and Jacksonville), as well as three Southeast metro areas (Raleigh, NC; Charlotte, NC; and Nashville, Tennessee) and Seattle.” The newspaper contains a chart showing both Raleigh and Charlotte among the 10 fastest growing metropolitan areas in each of the last three decades.
“The decade 2010-2020 continues the country’s ‘diversity explosion’ that was already evident in the 2000s,” Frey writes. “While people of color (those who identify as Latino or Hispanic, Black, Asian American, Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, Native American or two or more races) together make up more than two-fifths (42%) of the US population, they now represent more than half (50.3%) of the combined population of major metropolitan areas.
Frey reports that the percentage of white residents in the 56 major metropolitan areas has declined since 2010 as they have attracted more people of color. Of the major metros, 21 increased the total number of white residents. “Austin, TX; Nashville, TN; Denver; Phoenix; and Raleigh, North Carolina has gained the most white residents over the past decade, each also gaining significant racial minority populations,” Frey writes.
“Major metropolitan areas have historically been central to minority settlement in the United States, dating back to waves of immigrants a century ago and continuing with the African-American movement to largely northern cities,” he writes. “Therefore, it is not surprising that Latino or Hispanic and Asian Americans with substantial immigrant roots are more heavily concentrated in major metropolitan areas than in the general population, despite significant recent dispersion.”
Frey emphatically points to the decline of more than one million people in the under-18 cohort nationwide. The decline in the youth population would have been more pronounced without the increase in racial and ethnic minorities. Frey lists Raleigh among the top 30 metros with youth population gains.
Yet, he writes, “in a rapidly aging country, this absolute decline in the youth population presents a demographic challenge for the future.”
Meeting this challenge, of course, requires that universities, colleges and schools be strengthened to produce a workforce that supports a diverse economy in a more mature society. It also requires an education that instills critical thinking and enthusiasm to preserve and strengthen American democracy.
For North Carolina and its major metros to remain strong places where people want to live and seek to thrive, facing that future is now.