For city, figures don't add up

Urban Chronicle

Population: Baltimore prepares to renew its battle with the Census Bureau over numbers showing a continued steady loss of residents.

April 15, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

FOR THE second time in three years, Baltimore is taking issue with U.S. Census Bureau estimates that show a continued significant decline in the city's population.

"We're going to be challenging the numbers," city planning director Otis Rolley III said this week.

Rolley said city construction and occupancy permits and other data point to a "leveling off" of the city's more than 50-year pattern of population loss -- not the 7,809 drop in city dwellers reported in the census estimates released last week for the 12 months from July 2002 through June last year.

"I think we're seeing a turnaround," Rolley said. "I don't think the numbers reflect that."

Rolley's comments could be dismissed as a classic case of blaming the messenger for bad news except for the city's experience two years ago.

At that time, the city availed itself of the Census Bureau's official process for challenging annual population estimates, done each year between the official 10-year counts. The 2002 challenge came after Census Bureau estimates that the city's population had declined by nearly 16,000 people -- from 651,154 to 635,210 -- for the 15 months from the time of the census in April 2000 through June 2001.

Seven months later, after reviewing housing and other data from the city, the Census Bureau revised its estimates, saying the city's population had declined by about 6,000 people during that time.

A year ago, the Census Bureau estimated that the city's population declined by just under 9,000 people from July 2001 through June 2002. The city considered challenging that estimate too, but it backed off.

Then last week, the Census Bureau estimated that Baltimore's population dropped yet again, to an estimated 628,670 people, while population in the city's outer suburbs soared.

Rolley acknowledged that people nationwide continued to prefer to live in suburbs over cities. But he contended that in Baltimore, as in several other cities, "We're seeing more and more empty-nesters coming back into the city," as well as "more and more people tired of having to drive just to get a Coca-Cola."

Baltimore's population peaked at 949,708 in 1950 and has been declining ever since. In 1990, Baltimore had 736,014 residents. A decade later, it had lost 84,860 people, or an average of 707 people a month -- more than any city in the United States.

For cities like Baltimore that have experienced decades of decline, census figures -- the decennial counts as well as the estimates -- have become referenda on urban health. Cities like Chicago and New York that experienced population gains in the 1990s after years of declines are rightfully seen as thriving; those like Baltimore that continue to register declines are viewed as troubled.

Unless and until the Census Bureau buys the city's argument that its most recent estimates are flawed, the figures stand as the most up-to-date statistical snapshot of the city's population trends. They indicate that Baltimore has lost 22,484 people in the 39 months since the 2000 census -- an average of 576 a month. That's an improvement over the 1990s, but not much of one.

Those estimates -- based on birth, death, immigration and tax-return data that track the movement of people from one jurisdiction to another -- showed that in the year that ended last July, the city had a net gain of about 1,300 immigrants and about the same increase in the number of births over deaths.

But the Census Bureau estimated that Baltimore lost more than 10,000 residents from domestic migration -- the difference between the number of people moving into the city from elsewhere in the United States and the number leaving for other cities and counties.

Last week's census estimates contained data for counties and a few cities, such as Baltimore, that are self-contained jurisdictions and not part of larger counties. Estimates on all incorporated cities will be released later this year, as will estimates on changes in race and ethnicity.

Because of the dearth of information on municipalities, comparisons between Baltimore and other cities are limited.

But those that are available suggest that older cities that are gaining population are the exception rather than the rule.

New York City added 13,371 residents from July 2002 through June 2003, with the bulk of the growth coming in Manhattan. But two of the city's five boroughs -- Brooklyn and Queens -- lost people.

Washington lost an estimated 5,773 residents; its population now stands at 563,384. Philadelphia lost 9,441 people and its population now is 1,479,339. And New Orleans lost 4,057 residents, giving it a population of 469,032.

Whatever the outcome of Baltimore's challenge to the Census Bureau's 2003 estimates, Rolley is convinced that by the end of the decade the city will show an increase in population from the 2000 count.

"We'll be dancing in the streets," he said.

Exactly how many people will be celebrating, no one is estimating.

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