Records show Wilkes County’s population decline from 2010 to 2020 was the first time the county lost people from one decennial U.S. Census count to the next since 1850. (It increased by only half of 1% from 1950 to 45,269 in 1960.)

After increasing by 6.9% from 1990 to 2000 and by 5.65% from 2000 to a peak of 69,340 in 2010, it was announced last week that Wilkes County’s population dropped by 4.9% to 65,969 in 2020.

Although Wilkes was among 51 North Carolina counties that lost population from 2010-2020 (by far the most ever), the decrease in Wilkes was the most pronounced among counties in northwestern N.C.

Wilkes County’s population decline resulted from net out-migration (mostly younger adults) and from deaths exceeding births. Net out-migration for jobs can cause the age structure of the population to shift even older. For Wilkes and many other counties, there are good reasons to expect these trends to continue in the next few decades.

Demographers and legislators will begin using 2020 population data to adjust expectations for public service funding and legislative districts.

Wilkes and other rural counties in western and eastern North Carolina will be the losers in the resulting redistribution of government funding and political representation. The state’s metropolitan counties in the Piedmont, where most of the population growth occurred, will be the winners. In particular, they’ll gain clout in the legislature.

The state demographer at the N.C. Office of State Budget and Management projects that North Carolina will continue to attract newcomers. They’re mostly people moving here for educational and employment opportunities, as well as to retire.

All of this raises questions for Wilkes leaders (and voters) about planning for the future, especially by addressing infrastructure and public service needs and how to encourage people to move here.

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