A Tale Of Two Counties: A Visit To A Swing State's Richest And Poorest Places

Nov 4, 2016
Originally published on November 7, 2016 2:24 pm

The presidential election looks very different from the heights of the economy than it does from its depths.

In North Carolina, rural Bertie County, the poorest in the state, and tech hub Wake County, the most prosperous, are less than two hours apart by car in this important presidential swing state. And yet they could almost be on opposite sides of the world. Charlotte Gilliam, a resident of Bertie, says the difference between there and Wake is "from here to China."

One county represents an older, more traditional vision of America. The other represents a newer, more globalized, and rapidly growing vision. Wake County includes Raleigh, the state capital, and is part of the Research Triangle region, known for high-tech firms and universities. It attracts so many younger people from elsewhere that its median age is 35, almost three years below the national average.

The median household income in Bertie is $29,388. In Wake, it's $66,579, well above the national median household income of $56,000.

It would be tempting, but wrong, though, to say that in 2016, Donald Trump and Republicans represent the old America, while Hillary Clinton and the Democrats represent the new. There is a degree of truth in this, but in conversations this week with residents, NPR easily found people across the political spectrum in those two counties. In both places, though, it wasn't hard to see the links between people's daily lives and the way they are voting this fall.

Bertie County includes farms and historic towns but has notably low wages. No major city is near; the county seat has one hospital with six beds, and a single supermarket. Young people commonly leave for opportunities elsewhere, returning only when it's time to settle down or retire. Its median age is 44, well over the national average and almost a decade older than that of Wake County. Nearly 20,200 live in Bertie; more than 1,024,000 live in Wake.

Bertie has a grave problem with flooding. Windsor, the county seat, was twice inundated this fall after a tropical storm and a hurricane. And Wake County? It has a problem with traffic: a flood of automobiles that are a symptom of a growing and prosperous population.

Lauren Migaki and Taylor Haney produced this story for broadcast.

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