Mecklenburg growth includes low-income newcomers

Mecklenburg County continued to grow during the financial crisis, partly because of a stream of low-income residents, newly released U.S. Census Bureau data show.

About 23 percent of the people who moved to Mecklenburg annually from 2007-11 had a household income of less than $25,000 – half of the county median.

Mecklenburg, meanwhile, tallied a net loss of people whose households earned more than $150,000.

The county netted about 11,800 people a year during the five-year span. In all, Mecklenburg’s population grew from about 842,600 in 2007 to 945,300 in 2011, but those figures include births.

The new Census estimates also tracked the number of people who moved within 2007-11 and included their former and current county of residence.

Experts point to several reasons for the movement of low-income earners. They said poor residents tend to move to metropolitan areas from rural ones during slow economic times.

Carson Dean, executive director of the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, said many outsiders see Mecklenburg as a place of opportunity when jobs vanish in rural areas. Sometimes those moving here end up seeking help from the shelter, he said.

North Carolina’s unemployment rate jumped from 4.3 percent in January 2007 to 9 percent in January 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of December 2013, it measured 6.9 percent.

“When you have 9 percent across the board, I think logic will tell you on the poorest end of the spectrum, the unemployment rate is going to be much higher,” Dean said. “A lot of what I hear are people just coming looking for an opportunity.”

Young, educated professionals just beginning their careers who are attracted to the financial services industry may also fall into the low-income category in some circumstances.

John Chesser, senior analyst for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, said people in that group are attracted to the business and housing opportunities found more often in Mecklenburg than surrounding counties. But they may stay in the county to raise families and start businesses of their own, he said.

Since about 2010, Chesser said Mecklenburg has grown faster than its suburban counties, including Union County, which was formerly the fastest-growing county in the Carolinas. However, more Mecklenburg residents moved to Union than vice versa in recent years.

Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at UNC Chapel Hill, called Mecklenburg and Wake counties the state’s “magnetic poles.” Those are areas where growth has accelerated in recent years, he said.

“Charlotte is an increasingly mature metropolitan region with the advantages of an economy more robust than the state that it’s in,” Guillory said. “But it has some of the internal tensions or movements within that.”

Part of that tension is a division between the haves and the have-nots, Guillory said.

Data show Mecklenburg lost more high-income earners than it gained in recent years, many of whom left for surrounding counties. The annual net loss of high-earners was about 1,400.

Wake County, on the other hand, saw a net increase of about 1,100 affluent residents a year.

It’s unclear why Mecklenburg saw a loss of those making at least $150,000 per household. But the perception of better schools, new jobs and cheaper home prices outside of the county are all possibilities, experts said.

Although the newly released census figures are only estimates, Guillory said they are strong indicators of a trend: a greater separation between the rich and poor.

“It does raise a concern that there is a division of the affluent and people of modest means not only in terms of income, but also in terms of geography,” he said.