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Let's not explain away Baltimore's population loss. It really is a bad sign.

The latest census data showing Baltimore City lost about 6,000 people last year should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s an estimate based on sampling, not an actual count, so it is subject to error. Indeed, Baltimore officials have challenged such estimates in the past as being too low, and they have occasionally succeeded in convincing the Census Bureau to revise its numbers. Some close observers cast doubt on these particular statistics, saying they seem incongruous with other data on the housing market, apartment construction and the like.

But here’s the thing: Whatever mysterious forces are supposedly causing the Census Bureau to screw up Baltimore’s numbers aren’t affecting the nation’s other big cities. Among the top 30 in terms of population (Baltimore being No. 30), only one other has lost population since the 2010 census — Detroit. All the others are growing, often by double-digit percentages, and in the aggregate faster than the nation’s population as a whole. A drop of 6,000 in one year is not catastrophic for Baltimore — after all, it represents less than 1 percent of the city’s population — but it is part of a pattern, and one that puts us out of step with other cities.

There are a few important caveats about this particular set of data, but they should not be used as an excuse to dismiss these numbers. Quite the opposite.

The first is that while Baltimore City’s population dropped, the metro area population — which includes the surrounding suburban counties — actually ticked up in the national rankings from 21st to 20th. People are moving to this region, which remains economically dynamic and affords a strong quality of life. But Baltimore City is not benefiting from that growth in the ways that count most. The city remains an employment and cultural center (though not so dominantly so as it once was), but that doesn’t do enough to sustain the tax base or the school system. Without growth, we find the burdens of caring for aging infrastructure — from schools to water mains — and coping with the social problems endemic to big cities spread among fewer and fewer people. That’s not sustainable.

The second caveat is that this particular batch of census data provides the population for counties, not cities, and so Baltimore — which functions as both — can sometimes be subject to unfair comparisons. Many of the nation’s other big cities are part of counties that incorporate large swaths of the suburbs, but Baltimore, hemmed in at a mere 81 square miles, does not. Thus, this particular dataset could mask an exodus to the suburbs outside of Phoenix (part of 9,200-square-mile Maricopa County) in a way that it does not for Baltimore.

But other big cities in the same situation saw population growth, often significant, during the last seven years. Philadelphia city and county have the same boundaries, and it is growing. Washington, D.C., which had a smaller population than Baltimore in 2010, has boomed past us. Tiny San Francisco, just 47 square miles, grew by about 10 percent in the last seven years. Boston, which takes up nearly the entirety of 59-square-mile Suffolk County, did too.

Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake made population growth an explicit goal of her administration, but she didn’t achieve it. Mayor Catherine Pugh has specifically mentioned a desire to make Baltimore more attractive to adults in their prime child-rearing years, a group that she says (quite correctly) judges the city based on crime and schools. That’s no great mystery. Racism spawned the white flight that initially set Baltimore on its path of population decline, but the black flight that has followed is based mainly on safety and educational opportunity. If we could wave a wand and fix those things, it would make a tremendous difference, but our actual efforts to address both have in good years produced modest success and in bad ones — as we have recently experienced in terms of crime — disaster.

To be sure, the city has suffered some external slights that have hurt, such as Gov. Larry Hogan’s cancellation of the Red Line and all the investment that would have come with it. The uncertainty surrounding the redevelopment of State Center falls into the same category of missed opportunities. Winning the Amazon HQ2 lottery would have been a bigger boost than both by far. But we need to finally move beyond the hope that the next big idea — whether it’s an IndyCar race or a new arena or another waterfront development — is going to jolt us back onto the path of growth and prosperity. And we need to do more than cross our fingers that an influx of immigrants is going to turn Baltimore around or that millennials will grow so enamored of city living that they’ll stick around no matter what.

It’s time to start questioning whether the model of the city as an independent political jurisdiction, hemmed in by century-old borders, still makes sense. It’s been more than 40 years since a national civil rights report referred to Baltimore County as a “white noose” surrounding the city. The county is no longer so white, but its separation still chokes the city in terms of its tax base, school enrollment and political clout. Other cities long ago merged their school districts with those in the suburbs or formed regional governments. At what point will we have the courage to start that conversation here?

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