The Census dilemma


Mayor Schmoke has abandoned his wait-and-see attitude regarding the accuracy of the U.S. Census count that showed Baltimore's population declining by some 66,000 people during the past decade, a drop of 8.5 percent that was nearly a third again larger than expected. Last week Schmoke joined a growing chorus of mayors across the country who are challenging the official figures that will serve as the basis for distributing vast amounts of federal aid in the 1990s.

The city's case rests on an apparent discrepancy between the number of households identified by census workers from mailing lists and the number of households indicated by city property records and utility company accounts. City officials say that local records show that some city census tracts contain many more housing units than census officials found. If that claim is born out, the city would be entitled to have census takers return for a recount of people living in those units.

We suspect, however, that even if the Census Bureau accepts the city's claim the difference may not turn out to be all that great -- perhaps a few thousand at best. The fact is, Baltimore has been steadily been losing population for 40 years at the rate of about 6,000 people annually as a result of middle-class flight to the suburbs -- a demographic shift mirrored by other big cities across the country.

Suburban flight socks the city with a double whammy by depriving it of both its middle-class taxpayers as well as the raw numbers on which formulas for federal assistance -- and political clout in the state General Assembly -- are calculated.

In the short run a recount might well raise a few extra million. But a long-term solution will require either a reversal of the massive federal withdrawal of support for the cities that occurred the 1980s -- unlikely given the huge budget deficits run up by Reagan-era profligacy -- or the even more radical step of fundamental political restructuring that merges cities and their suburbs into some form of metropolitan government. Don't hold your breath waiting for either one to happen anytime soon.

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