Fighting for Population

Boston and Philadelphia both won challenges last week to the Census Bureau’s 2008 population estimates. What will this mean for federal funding, or the psyche of these cities?

North Central Philadelphia Tony the Misfit

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For once, it’s actually not bad news about population in Philadelphia. After more than half a century of loss, the Census Bureau has confirmed that the city is, in fact, growing. And in Boston, officials are celebrating yet another increase in population.

In October, Philadelphia challenged the Census Bureau’s 2008 population estimate of 1,447,395, claiming that they had missed the mark by undercounting. And last Monday, the city received a letter from the bureau raising the headcount by about 93,000 people. Philadelphia’s 2008 population figure now stands at 1,540,351, a dramatic revision. This number is higher than even Philadelphia officials had expected and exceeds the official 2000 census population of 1,517,550. Sure, it’s a fairly small amount of growth in 8 years, but it’s something, and it could have a significant impact on federal funding.

And in Boston, city officials also received a welcomed letter from the Census Bureau last week. They too won a challenge to the 2008 numbers, adding more than 11,000 people to the previous estimate of 620,535. While this is good news for the New England city, it’s not very surprising. After a steep decline between 1960 and 1980, the city has been experiencing mild but steady growth between 2 and 6 percent per decade. Furthermore, this is the fourth time Boston has successfully challenged census numbers since the bureau began the challenge program almost a decade ago. Still, Boston and Massachusetts leaders know that the increase in population means an increase in federal funding. After Boston won their challenge of the bureau’s 2007 population estimate, Massachusetts’s Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin estimated that the city could gain between $2.5 and 5 million in funding from the Fed.

It’s too soon to know how much Philadelphia might gain, but a successful population challenge could do a lot more for the psyche and reputation of the city than could a few extra million dollars. Philadelphia has been losing population for more than 50 years, to the tune of about 500,000 people. Although the downturn has been slowing in the past decade, this is the first official confirmation of actual growth. Philadelphia’s image as a city of decline is no longer accurate, but will outsiders see it this way? More importantly, will Philadelphians see it this way? Let’s hope that residents and businesses alike will begin to view the city as a place to be proud of, rather than as a place merely to survive in.

For both Philadelphia and Boston, there are still challenges ahead. For one, keeping the revised population figures up, or even increasing them, might be difficult. Neither city has committed public funds to outreach for the upcoming 2010 census. This is a problem, especially in Philadelphia. According to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative, Philadelphians are lagging far behind other cities in awareness of the census. City government, as well as residents, must take a greater interest in achieving an accurate count in 2010 if they hope to get more funding, to start changing the popular perception of the city or to increase its own citizens’ morale. There’s a lot at stake. Will Philadelphians rise to the challenge?

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Tags: philadelphiagovernancebostonbig datademographics

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