Census Adjustment Would Not Provide Bonanza for Baltimore

June 23, 1991|By JAMES BOCK svB

In his uphill effort to persuade Baltimoreans they should stand up and be counted in the 1990 census, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke often told crowds: "The more people we count, the more money we get. It's that simple."

Well, it's not quite that simple after all.

Now that Baltimore stands to gain nearly 36,000 residents if population counts are adjusted next month to make up for minorities overlooked by the census, city officials aren't predicting any windfall in federal and state aid based on population.

The fact is that even such a large adjustment -- a 4.9 percent increase in Baltimore's population to 772,000 -- probably wouldn't noticeably ease the city's budget pains.

"It's not as simple as saying more people mean more dollars," said Peter A. Bounpane, assistant director of the Census Bureau. "If someone goes up, someone else goes down. It's a fixed pie. The change may not be nearly as big as people think."

But last year, when the city was promoting the census, the mayor and other officials claimed that Baltimore lost $800 a year per city resident missed in the 1980 census -- or $232 million over the decade, based on an estimated undercount of 29,000.

The message was that every Baltimorean counted. And they still do -- but apparently not quite as much as once advertised.

For one thing, federal and state aid have dropped markedly since the 1980s. Federal and state grants amount to $557 million in next year's city operating budget, or about $757 for each of the 736,014 Baltimore residents counted in 1990.

According to the reasoning city officials used last year, an extra 36,000 residents -- at $757 apiece -- would mean a cool $27 million a year in new aid to Baltimore.

Imagine -- $27 million. With that kind of money, the city could cut 34 cents from the property tax rate without laying off one worker or demoting one fire lieutenant. Or it could pay the bill for its entire Department of Housing and Community Development and still have a few million to spare.

But don't count on seeing that kind of money -- even in the doubtful event that U.S. Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher decides to adjust the census count for the first time in history.

There are two main reasons why any extra aid won't amount to nearly that much:

* First, less than a quarter of federal dollars are doled out according to formulas that rely on census population data. And the formulas usually consider population as only one of several factors. Thus, the effect of any population increase is diluted.

In at least one important federal program, Community Development Block Grants -- which is budgeted to add $22.6 million to city coffers next year for housing and neighborhood programs -- declining population can actually entitle a city to more aid.

* Second, any extra aid still comes from the same national pie. Federal and state grants are a zero-sum game: When one local government wins, another loses.

Baltimore would get more aid only to the extent that its estimated undercount was greater than that of other cities. By the same token, the state of Maryland, whose undercount was below the national average, might lose aid.

Put another way, a city's relative share of aid would increase only as its share of the nation's population increased.

Even by adding nearly 36,000 to its count, Baltimore's tiny sliver of the U.S. population -- which itself would grow in the adjustment -- would increase only slightly.

Richard P. Nathan, now director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York-Albany, examined the effect of a census adjustment on federal aid to cities in 1982. He concluded that it was tiny.

Dr. Nathan wrote then that "representatives of cities have issued exaggerated and unsubstantiated statements, some of which have been reported so often that they are sometimes mistaken for facts."

Reached this week, Dr. Nathan said: "I can't see any way the situation has changed. If you're in it for federal aid, you're in it for the wrong reason."

Bill Hunt, a General Accounting Office expert on the census, said "there's no question that for the most part urban areas would benefit from adjustment in terms of funding."

But he said no analysis had been made of how much cities like Baltimore stood to gain.

Baltimore's old estimate of $800 a person in extra aid was "a useful number for purposes of general dialogue, but not something you want to bet on," Mr. Hunt said.

"There's a natural tendency obviously to present it in the best case. Human nature would pull you in that direction," he said.

Dr. Nathan was blunter about the big cities' claims of many millions lost in federal aid because of the undercount: "To me it's baloney," he said.

Baltimore spent more than $1 million, including the cost of staff time and supplies, to promote the census, Mayor Schmoke told a congressional hearing last fall.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.