City gains 15,000 in census revision

Change indicates slowest pace of population decline since '60s

$2 million more in federal grants expected

October 27, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Census Bureau has revised upward by nearly 15,000 its most recent estimate of Baltimore's population - a change that indicates the city's loss of residents has dropped to its slowest pace in decades and that the city could be poised to reverse a half-century of population decline.

The revised census figures - coming in response to a challenge by Baltimore officials - put the city's population as of July 1, 2003, at 643,304, compared with the original estimate of 628,670 released in April.

In the 2000 census, Baltimore's population - which peaked at almost 950,000 in 1950 and has decreased every decade since then - was 651,154.

During the 1990s, when some aging cities such as Chicago and New York reversed decades of population decline, Baltimore's population dropped by 84,860 - an average of 707 a month.

Between the 2000 census and July 1, 2003, the city's population has dropped by 7,850 based on the new estimate - an average of about 200 a month and the slowest pace of decline since the 1960s.

This is the second time in recent years that Baltimore has successfully challenged census estimates. Elated city officials - who will announce the revised census estimate at a news conference this morning - say that the new numbers will result in about $2 million a year more in federal grants for drug treatment, transportation and other areas tied to population.

Officials also say the figures confirm a broad turnaround in the city's fortunes. The pace of decline was below 100 a month during the past two years, based on the revised census estimates, and officials predict the city's population by the end of the decade will be equal to or greater than what it was in 2000.

"The long and short of it is, it's a great thing," city Planning Director Otis Rolley III said yesterday.

"No matter how you cut the numbers, we see a definite flattening out of the population loss. Clearly, we are not losing 1,000 people per month as we were" during some years in the 1990s, he said.

Others who monitor growth and population figures, while agreeing the new numbers are positive for the city, were more muted in their reaction.

`A smaller step'

"You need to be cautious," said Gerrit Knapp, executive director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland, College Park. "If you had an increase, you'd have more cause for optimism. Slowing in the rate of decrease is a smaller step."

Mark Goldstein, an economist with the Maryland Department of Planning, said he was surprised by the size of the revision and wondered whether, for technical reasons, it might be somewhat overstated.

Still, he said, "If, in fact, it's true, it's showing that the city is starting to turn around. ... Obviously, a city that's vital is not one that's losing significant amount of population over time."

In 2002, the city challenged a Census Bureau estimate that its population as of July 1, 2001, was 635, 210. After considering that challenge, the bureau upped its estimate to 645,305.

Based on that estimate and the revised figure for July 1, 2003, city officials say Baltimore's population has declined by 2,001 people in the past two years - an average of 83 per month.

The Census Bureau's population estimates - done each year between the once-every-decade counts for states, counties, cities and towns - are based on data for births, deaths, foreign immigration and the movement of people between jurisdictions based on federal tax filings.

Challenge submitted

Under procedures set up by the Census Bureau, Baltimore submitted a challenge that included a wide range of housing data, including demolition and occupancy permits, that try to measure the creation or loss of households.

Nationwide, the Census Bureau accepted three challenges to its 2001 estimates and 14 to its 2002 estimates. It receives 20 to 40 challenges per year, according to Gregory S. Harper, a demographer with the bureau's population division.

Harper acknowledged that the revision in the city's estimate was "a pretty big change numerically" but said the alteration was not that large given the city's size. "It's a little over 2 percent," he said.

The bureau will revise its estimate for the city's July 1, 2002, population, which it put at 636,479, based on its new figures for last year, Harper said. For that reason, he said, it would be inaccurate to say that the city's population had increased from 2002 to 2003.

City officials say part of the problem with the Census Bureau estimates is that the tax data used to track movement of people between jurisdictions may not accurately track poor residents and foreign immigrants. They say the revised figures more accurately reflect the construction of new and rehabilitated housing units that is drawing new residents.

"Anecdotally, we see a lot of young people and empty-nesters moving to the city," Rolley said. "For an extended period of time, we had more people leaving than attracted back. You see that changing."

Baltimore's population peaked at 949,708 in 1950. In the 1950s, the city's population declined by 10,684 people, or an average of 89 per month. During the 1960s, the city's population dropped 33,327, or 278 people per month.

The city's worst decade in terms of population loss was the 1970s, when the number of residents declined by 119,046, or 992 per month. During the 1980s, the city's population declined by 50,727, or 422 people per month.

Between 1950 and 2000, Baltimore's population declined by 298,554 - about 31 percent.

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