Baltimore's declining population

Baltimore's large population loss last year isn't good news, but it's also likely not the direct result of the riots following Freddie Gray's death or the spike in violence that followed. The city posted the third largest population loss of any big U.S. county in raw numbers (6,738), according to a report from the Census Bureau, and the second largest in percentage terms (1.1 percent), but it wasn't an outlier. Rather, big, urban counties across the Mid Atlantic and Midwest lost population last year, from Baltimore to Pittsburgh to Detroit to Milwaukee. Those Rust Belt cities have been in decline for decades, and after a brief lull during the recession and its aftermath, the trend accelerated last year.

Some city leaders have looked for simple answers to the city's big drop between July of 2015 and July of 2016, such as a decline in Baltimore college enrollment after the riots or the closing of the Baltimore City Detention Center. The data refute both. The Census Bureau includes in its report an estimate of the "group quarters" population, which counts both people who are in jail and those who live in dorms, and that number stayed stable. What spiked was "net domestic outmigration." About 11,000 more people moved out of Baltimore to other parts of the U.S. than moved in.

Part of the reason Baltimore ranks as highly as it does on this list is geography. The census dataset in question details the population of counties, not cities, but Baltimore does double-duty in that regard as it is not part of a larger county. Thus, anyone who moves to the suburbs here crosses the county line by definition. That's not the case in most other places. Cleveland makes up only about a third of the population of Cuyahoga County, for example, so people can move to the suburbs without showing up in this report as a net loss. (Though Cuyahoga County did lose 5,673 people, or 0.45 percent of its population.) St. Louis is also a county-equivalent, and it was a bigger loser on a percentage basis than Baltimore, though the situation there is worse in that St. Louis County also saw a big decline.

But even if Baltimore isn't unique among similarly situated cities in losing population, the decline is still a problem that needs to be addressed. Population losses in Detroit have been so severe that the city has struggled to afford basic services like streetlights or timely ambulance service. Baltimore has already gotten a sense of that dynamic in the current school funding crisis. Enrollment declines have translated into reduced funding for the school system, but the cuts proposed to address it threaten to drive more parents away and exacerbate the problem.

Indeed, if there is one place city leaders should focus to stabilize and increase Baltimore's population, it would be the schools. The city has been particularly effective at attracting millennnials, but the evidence in this new dataset of population gains in the Sun Belt and exurbs suggests that the generation's supposed aversion to the car-dependent, suburban lifestyle may have been the product of temporary circumstances, not permanent preferences. Stabilizing and improving Baltimore's schools is crucial to ensuring that the city that attracted this generation as 20-something singles continues to meet their needs as married 30-somethings with kids.

As such, recent pledges by Mayor Catherine Pugh, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and others to shift money from the police budget to the schools are intriguing. We have questions about whether and how that can be safely accomplished in the context of a sustained spike in violent crime, but in the long term, it's clearly the direction we should be headed.

The report isn't entirely bleak. The city continues to be a draw for immigrants, with a net increase of nearly 2,200 last year. Building on that will take more than pledges to maintain Baltimore's status as a sanctuary city; it will take policies to facilitate the kind of entrepreneurship in which new immigrants disproportionately engage.

Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake made increasing Baltimore's population by 10,000 families a central goal of her administration. She didn't achieve it, but that doesn't make it impossible. Baltimore continues to attract people, from college students to empty-nesters. Mayor Pugh's job is to keep them here.

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