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Revision puts population estimate for Hub over 600,000

Boston challenged US on numbers

By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / December 5, 2008
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Boston's population estimate will officially clear the 600,000 mark for the first time since the 1970s, based on a successful city challenge to the US Census Bureau, officials said yesterday.

The Census Bureau has agreed to revise its 2007 population estimate for Boston to 608,352, after Mayor Thomas M. Menino contended that the Census Bureau undercounted Boston's population by missing college students and other people who live in group housing.

"It's the third year in a row that I've fought to find the truth in the data, because population counts directly affect our level of federal funding and private investment as well as people's perception of Boston as a growing city," Menino said. "It has also election possibilities with congressional districts being redrawn. They go on assumptions that we have a lot of vacant land and properties. Those assumptions might be true for some places, but not Boston."

The annual population estimates are calculated using demolition rates based on the age of buildings, which Menino and others say may not be typical of Boston, where buildings are old but often preserved.

The Census Bureau's higher estimate boosted Boston's total by about 9,000 people, but it didn't go quite as far as the city had hoped, to 619,250. The Boston Redevelopment Authority provided data on dormitories and other group housing and argued that fewer buildings have been demolished than the census had estimated.

Greg Harper, a demographer for the bureau, said the bureau was receptive to the city's new data on group quarters but did not agree with Boston's lower estimate of demolished property. The Census Bureau also declined to reconsider its 2000 counts, which provide the foundation for the annual population estimates.

"We can deal with changes since Census 2000, but we sort of have to accept Census 2000 as truth. We can't change that number," said Harper. "We can change updates to that."

The annual estimates update the census counts to reflect births, deaths, and migration. They are also adjusted based on factors such as typical demolition rates, which are estimated using the ages of buildings. Though the adjustments are statistical estimates rather than actual counts, they help determine a state's number of representatives in Congress and funding allocations from a host of federal programs that are based on population.

Threatened with losing funding and at least one seat in Congress as a result of dwindling population, Massachusetts invested $700,000 in a concerted effort with the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts to better track the state's population. The state is gearing up for a massive effort to get people reported in the 2010 Census.

Next week, the Census Bureau is expected to accept additional challenges from 15 other Massachusetts towns and cities, including Springfield and Worcester - boosting the state's total population estimate by 21,295, said Secretary of State William F. Galvin.

Galvin said Massachusetts could gain between $2.5 million and $5 million a year in federal funding based on the revisions in recent years.

"The results of this effort to challenge these estimates prove there are opportunities to add actual people to the census count," Galvin said. "People are being overlooked or are not being counted."

The results also restore bragging rights for a city that was growing dispirited over the news that its population was flagging.

Susan Strate, manager of the Donahue Institute's Population Estimates Program that worked with Boston in its challenge, said, "Going over 600,000 is a symbolic gain."

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