Census to help smaller counties

Yearly reports offer snapshots of people, trends

August 20, 2006|By GINA DAVIS | GINA DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

Working to keep pace with their fast-growing populations, planners in Harford and Carroll counties can add a new weapon to their arsenals -- yearly reports from the U.S. Census Bureau that promise to make it easier to track local demographics.

The reports, which are compilations of data from the American Community Survey, include demographic and social information such as race, Hispanic origin, age, education, marital status, grandparents as caregivers, veterans, disability status and U.S. citizenship.

"It's very powerful for planners," said census spokeswoman Stacy Gimbel. "This is the first time that these areas have had any data since the 2000 census, and the next time they would receive some kind of detailed information like this would be 2012. By the time you get to 2012, and you're having to prepare for a natural disaster or new schools or senior centers, those data could be out of date."

She added that before this year's survey, smaller communities typically had to wait for the once-per-decade census to get federal data on the demographics of their areas.

The 2005 estimates are based on an annual, nationwide household sample of about 250,000 addresses per month, or 2.5 percent of the population a year, according to the bureau's Web site. The data are being released in four batches: demographic and social data last week; economic data Aug. 29; housing data Oct. 3; and race, ethnic and ancestry data Nov. 14.

Dunbar Brooks, who studies demographics with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, said smaller communities stand to greatly benefit.

"When you're looking at it year to year, you can see if there are trends," he said. "That's real helpful if you have to make adjustments" in community planning.

A product of the revamped 2010 census, which includes elimination of the long-form survey, the data help federal officials determine where to distribute more than $200 billion annually to state and local governments, according to the bureau's Web site.

Because of the change -- as well as increased funding for data collection, said Gimbel -- subtle shifts in population will be available annually to county planners, aiding them as they plot the need for new roads, teachers and other public services.

Carroll's planning director, Steven C. Horn, said having the yearly data will provide more timely, objective and readily available information "from a recognized source with a lot of credibility."

He said that his department creates annual reports that reflect such information as demographic changes and development patterns, and he expects the yearly survey from the Census Bureau will help him tremendously.

"Getting more regular reports could only help," he said. "Every year that we get further away from the decennial census, it makes it more difficult to update our projections."

Starting in 2004, the data included population centers with 250,000 or more residents, but this year's study was broadened to include communities of at least 65,000.

By 2008, the bureau plans to provide three-year averages for communities with at least 20,000 residents, Gimbel said. By 2010, she said, the agency plans to release annual five-year averages at the neighborhood level.

C. Pete Gutwald, Harford's director of planning and zoning, called the annual report the "wave of the future."

"This form of information gathering has been discussed for many years," he said. "It could be a better, more coordinated way to get information. Like everything else, we can't wait 10 years to get data."

But Dan Rooney, comprehensive planner for Harford County, said that because the data are derived from a much smaller sample of respondents than the nationwide census conducted every decade, they are less reliable.

"The data may even be skewed depending on the population sampled," he said.

He said there were few surprises in the data. For instance, its estimate of Harford's current population at 237,644 showed a difference of less than 500 people from the county's figure of 237,165.

Rooney said this smaller sampling with fewer questions may be the future of the census.

The briefer survey can be "a continuous measurement" in lieu of the long form, but again, "there will be a broader range of error," he said. "You will get data that is less accurate, but not worthless. As long as you know the limitations, it will be OK."

Gimbel said that as the bureau moves into data reports that include three-year and then five-year averages, there should be less concern about accuracy.

The more recent survey data give planners snapshots of characteristics that can be helpful, particularly in the time before new census data become available, Rooney said.

In a society with a seemingly insatiable appetite for timely and accurate information, the yearly reports could have wide-reaching implications on social services, environmental policy and economic development, said Linda Semu, assistant professor of comparative international sociology at McDaniel College in Westminster.

Semu said that while the annual batch of information may help county planners bolster their efforts to secure more state and federal funding for local projects, the data can shed valuable light on social changes within a county.

"You have the figures and then you can extrapolate what kinds of changes are taking place in the county," said Semu, who teaches a course in urban sociology. "For example, if you have people working in D.C. and living [in Carroll County], what kinds of political attitudes do they have? Are they in line with the general attitudes of Carroll County?"

gina.davis@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Mary Gail Hare and Josh Mitchell contributed to this article.

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