Tucked away in northeastern North Carolina is Bertie County —a rural, primarily black community in one of the state’s poorest areas with many of its fastest-shrinking towns.
There are plenty of pothole-marked roads, mobile homes, and overgrown lots of weeds and shrubs scattered among fields of tobacco, cotton and sage. But there aren’t many stores, banks or other businesses.
“This part of the state is forgotten,” said Larry Drew, mayor of Aulander, a town that has seen its population drop by over 9 percent, from 895 people in 2010 to 813 in 2016. And last year, it lost its largest employer — a peanut factory.
Aulander isn’t alone. Bertie County is home to seven of North Carolina’s top 10 towns with the biggest percentage decline in residents from 2015 to 2016, according to data from the UNC Carolina Population Center.
And further population decrease is expected as more people are dying there than are being born, and more people are moving away, the center said.
The South’s large cities, those with at least 50,000 people, grew by 1.3 percent from 2015 to 2016, figures from the U.S. Census Bureau showed. Towns with populations under 5,000 grew only 0.2 percent, and a lot of that growth came in neighborhoods on the edges of bigger metropolitan areas, experts said.
For small, rural towns it’s a story repeated throughout the nation: Young adults tend to leave and relocate to areas that offer better employment and educational opportunities.
They tend to raise their families where they move, so there are fewer children in these places. In Bertie County, 19 percent of its population is 65 years or older, compared with 16 percent statewide.
In Bertie County, industries that once thrived — several lumber mills and a herring packing plant in Colerain, for example — are now shuttered. With an economy that relies heavily on agriculture, there are limited good-paying jobs for residents, about a third of who officials estimate live below the poverty line. The county’s largest employers include a Perdue chicken processing plant, which has about 2,000 workers, and a nearby state prison.
And as more people leave, tax revenue drops, making it difficult for small towns to provide services, said Rebecca Tippett of the Carolina Population Center.
Lewiston-Woodville, population 494, has seen a 10 percent drop of 55 people in six years, the steepest in North Carolina. The western town has had trouble staffing emergency services positions, officials said….