Yearly census might get try Baltimore City, County, and Calvert take offer

'Ten years is just too long'

Experiment awaits congressional funding

June 05, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Three Maryland communities soon may be part of a landmark federal effort to provide a more accurate -- and timely -- portrait of America's population, as the U.S. Census Bureau seeks to overhaul its once-a-decade national tally.

If Congress approves $38.5 million for the first year of a three-year pilot program, Baltimore, Baltimore County and Calvert County would be among 56 jurisdictions nationwide conducting in-depth, annual surveys on everything from income to commuting patterns.

The pilot program -- known as the American Community Survey -- could begin mailing questionnaires as early as November, the first step toward giving governments, businesses and others more precise data than they now get from the decennial Census.

The program could become permanent, with annual surveys going out to more than 3,000 communities across the country by 2003.

"Ten years is just too long," said Dunbar Brooks, a demographer for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. With an annual sample, "you can see how neighborhoods change."

The proposal comes as officials at all levels of government are preparing for the 2000 Census. The constitutionally mandated tallies help determine such major issues as political redistricting and how billions of federal aid dollars are distributed.

Political tension over the count is growing too, with President Clinton this week advocating use of a new method that Democrats say is more accurate, but which Republicans fear will increase Democratic influence in redistricting.

Census officials say their local survey program eventually could separate the politically sensitive head count from the other important data collected during the census, including information on housing, education and economic status.

'Can only be a benefit'

Cynthia Taeuber, a demographic statistics expert for the Census Bureau, said the new survey, if successful, would simplify the census in 2010 by separating the long, demographic questionnaire from the simpler chore of tallying residents.

And local officials welcome the prospect of detailed, up-to-date Census data.

"Good quality information can only be a benefit," said Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

Said Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke: "Anything that's going to hTC help us give the most up-to-date view of our city will be an enhancement."

Though federal officials, businesses and local planners now make projections based on the decennial data, those projections amount to educated guesses, officials say.

That can be a problem, said Arnold F. "Pat" Keller, Baltimore County planning director. He noted that, as the county works on a new 10-year Master Plan, the 1990 Census data is pre-recession, pre-recovery -- practically prehistoric in this instant computer age.

The American Community Survey, however, could be revised annually to reveal a particular community's shifting population, income and other changes.

"It's not going to provide the same level of information as every 10 years, but it still gives us more information than we've had," said Charles C. Graves III, city planning director.

In choosing the 56 communities from San Francisco to Mecklenburg County, N.C., that would take part in the pilot survey, the Census Bureau sought those that represent virtually every demographic, employment and housing condition in the nation.

Baltimore and Baltimore County were chosen, census officials say, partly because of their proximity to the bureau's Suitland base, and because officials believe the information will be well-used locally. Schmoke met with acting Census Director James F. Holmes on April 21, and county and census officials met Monday in Towson.

Smaller samples planned

The first surveys, which ask questions similar to the current census "long form," would be mailed to 5 percent of residents in the three Maryland jurisdictions, with the results due next year.

In the second and third years, the surveys would cover 1 percent of Baltimore and Baltimore County residents. The traditional census, by comparison, gathers demographic information by sampling 17 percent of residents.

Calvert County will sample 5 percent of its population in each of the three years, and the Calvert results will be compared with the traditional "long form" surveys sent to Calvert residents in 2000.

But Michel Lettre, assistant director of Maryland's Office of Planning, offered a caution.

"The proof is not in starting, but in sustaining it," he said, worrying that Congress eventually may balk at paying for an annual survey in addition to the once-a-decade count.

One locally based scientist is looking forward to a more accurate local survey.

Timothy W. Foresman, director of the spatial analysis laboratory at University of Maryland Baltimore County, is doing a federally financed research project on Baltimore's watershed. He said that data showing how people live and move in the area are more important than the count itself.

"We're on the crossroads of an exciting time," Foresman said, anticipating how the survey information will aid his research. "There are a lot of complexities that we need to study."

Pub Date: 6/05/98

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