Census Adjustment and Federal Aid

December 06, 1991

As predicted by some students of Census affairs (such as The Sun's James Bock), the General Accounting Office has determined that were the adjusted figures for the national nose-count substituted for the actual enumeration, the flow of federal aid dollars would not change much state by state, and Maryland would probably be a net loser.

The GAO studied three aid programs in which population is a factor -- social services block grants, highway assistance and Medicaid. Using adjusted data would redistribute less than 0.5 percent of total funding, the GAO concluded.

That is not much. For Maryland, using the adjusted data would reduce federal dollars for these programs, slightly -- but since every dollar counts, some state officials might prefer not to see the adjustment used as a basis for aid disbursement. We find that a mistaken view. Obtaining and using the adjusted figures are vitally important to the well-being of the state's poorer subdivisions.

Maryland would lose $145,000 in annual social services block grants out of a total of $51.6 million. That is only 0.28 percent. For highway programs, the annual loss would be $135,000 out of a total of $60.8 million (0.22 percent). For Medicaid, the loss would be zero, no change.

But it is within the states that the real differences between population count and population count adjustment exist. Baltimore, for example, was undercounted by 5 percent, or 36,000 persons. If the federal aid programs that are aimed at cities and state aid-sharing formulas use the lower count rather than the more accurate and larger adjustment, Baltimore would lose tens of millions of dollars in needed assistance over the decade. It is in the state's interest to see that Baltimore not be shortchanged, given the importance of the city to the state's general economic health and progress.

The Commerce Department has refused to release all the data on its post-enumeration survey, even though Census demographers believe it is more accurate than the count. It has agreed to provide adjusted figures for many cities, including Baltimore. State officials should use these figures for planning and allocating aid. This approach is needed. It is fair and it is more honest.

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