Baltimore, Pop. 772,079

June 23, 1991

The official Census Bureau enumeration of Americans (not counting those overseas) announced last December set the number at 248,709,873. This was so obviously erroneous as to be laughable -- if the stakes were not so high, especially for Baltimore and other big cities. Census demographers had estimated the resident population at 253.4 million. Even that, it now turns out, was too low. Last week, after a comprehensive, sophisticated and believable statistical study, the bureau reported that the number of resident Americans on Census Day, 1990, was 253,978,000.

As for Baltimore, its official population should be 772,079, which is the adjusted figure from the study reported last week, not the 736,014 of the simple head count reported last December.

We used to believe simple enumeration -- plain old head count -- was preferable to a statistical adjustment. But that was when enumeration was thought to be able to come within a mere 1 percent of actuality. The undercount of 1980 was 1.4 percent, demographers calculated at the time. Expensive and highly professional preparation for 1990 led many to believe that that error would be reduced. Instead it got worse -- to about 2.2 percent.

That may not seem like much, but consider Baltimore City. The undercount here was 4.9 percent. This is significant in both financial and political terms, as James Bock points out on Page 1 of this section today. The financial significance has to do with federal and state aid to the city based on population characteristics. Mr. Bock shows that the stakes involved have been exaggerated by some city officials here and elsewhere, but it appears to us that at least a half million dollars (nearly a penny on the tax rate), more likely $4 million (six cents) and maybe even much more would come to the city in aid each year if the uncounted 36,065 are added to the official population. That's this year. There are signs that federal aid to programs that are beneficial to cities, which were slashed in the 1980s, may be increased in the years ahead.

As for the political significance, if those 36,065 residents are counted, the city might have one more vote in the General Assembly, and there are times when one vote is worth its weight in gold in Annapolis. Here and in other states, adjustment may mean one more urban Democrat and one less suburban Republican in state houses. But because adjustment benefits the Sun Belt, the number of Republican-friendly congressional districts is likely to increase. Political considerations of this sort used to be the basis for opposition to letting the secretary of commerce make an adjustment, which could be manipulated, rather than depend on a head count for the official population. But this year the evidence is so overwhelming that the count was wrong and the adjustment much closer to the truth, that it would be an act of political manipulation to certify the enumeration as official.

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