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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Playing the Numbers

Posted By on Thu, Jan 15, 2009 at 10:22 AM

Say this for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl: The guy knows how to keep himself in the public eye.

As noted here yesterday, the mayor has gotten plenty of attention for "changing" his name to "Steelerstahl" prior to this weekend's AFC Championship. And judging from this LOL-worthy post at the 2 political junkies, apparently Ravenstahl got national play for this stunt. No surprise there: Pittsburgh's sports fanaticism is a well-established media narrative, and Ravenstahl's stunt plays into it perfectly. 

And now he's done it again, getting a story from our friend Rich Lord at the Post-Gazette, thanks to a pledge to convince the Census Bureau that it is undercounting the city's population. Census Bureau estimates have shown Pittsburgh losing population for years -- to the point where the city now numbers only 311,218 residents. As Ravenstahl tells the P-G, challenging those numbers is "something that we're considering."

Credit where it's due: This is a vast improvement on the old Potemkin Village approach. In order to "prove" the success of Tsarist Russia, Grigori Potemkin had to go to all the trouble of building entire fake towns. Pittsburgh officials, though, are saving on lumber: All they're trying to do is get the Census Bureau to twiddle with some numbers on its spreadsheet. Voila! So much for claims the city is shrinking. 

And as the P-G previously observed, other cities have managed to tweak their estimates upwards already. In the process, they have been able to make the case for more federal aid. 

But a couple things are worth thinking about here. 

First, so far the evidence for a dramatic undercount seems spotty. City officials claim that there's been a ton of new construction in town, and surely this reflects growth that the Census Bureau should take into account.

The thing is, the Census Bureau already takes new construction into account. As a statement on their methodology explains, to get a population estimate, the Bureau compiles household population data that includes an estimate of total housing. And to track changes in the number of housing units, Bureau officials

use building permits, estimates of construction where no building permits are reported, mobile home shipments, and estimates of housing unit loss to update housing unit change since the last census

So showing the Census Bureau permits for Downtown condos, for example, probably isn't going to impress them -- they've already taken that data into account. 

But Ravenstahl apparently believes he has other evidence in hand, according to the P-G:

There's anecdotal evidence that the decades-long tide of population loss is slowing, at least, [Ravnenstahl] argued, citing increased enrollments at some public magnet schools.

But of course, overall enrollment for the city school district is down. If I was the mayor, I'm not sure I'd bring up school data with the Bureau. Census officials might just use it to revise their estimates downward.

Finally, is this really a smart use of time ? The P-G informs us that the city has already missed its chance to officially challenge the Bureau's estimates -- the deadline passed more than a week ago. And remember that an actual Census will be conducted in 2010 -- just a year away. It seems strange to raise questions about estimates that you can't change -- and that won't be valid for much longer anyway. 

Then again, if your goal is to get yourself a couple days' worth of headlines ... mission accomplished. 

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