With jobs and federal aid at stake, U.S. cities are lining up to contest their 2010 census counts as too low.
A decade ago, there were 1,200 challenges filed by cities, towns and counties. The U.S. Conference of Mayors is predicting a big jump in that number, due in part to tighter budgets that make local officials more sensitive to potential drop-offs in federal money for Medicaid and other programs.
Nearly $450 billion in federal aid is distributed to states based on population each year, or roughly $1,500 per person.
Cities have two years to contest their counts under the Census Bureau's appeals process, which began this month.
"Along with federal funds, there's a psychological impact when a city loses population, because people and businesses want to be in a vibrant region where things are growing and happening," Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, who chairs the U.S. mayors' task force on the census, said.
"There will be a dramatic increase in the number of city challenges, I guarantee it," he said.
Doubts about the government's numbers are cropping up everywhere.
Real-estate agents in New York City want to know where the Census Bureau found vast stretches of empty housing that resulted in a tally that was 200,000 fewer people than expected. Miami officials are puzzled over a count that fell 30,000 below the bureau's 2009 estimate, contending that immigrants and middle-class whites in gated downtown condominiums were missed.
Houston added two new city council seats, even though the 2010 count showed it fell 549 short of the population required to do so. California cities are also mulling challenges after state officials estimated the census had failed to count 1.25 million people there.
As of this week, 18 U.S. cities, towns or villages had filed appeals, with many others saying they planned to do so, helped by new computer mapping and other technology that makes it easier to identify problems.
Based partly on city complaints, the Census Bureau already has identified coding errors involving more than 26,000 people in California, Connecticut, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Virginia and Washington state — mostly from Navy ships allocated to the wrong areas.
"We encourage cities to challenge," said Sharon Boyer, who is chief of the Census Bureau's appeals division. But the kinds of challenges that are accepted are limited to narrow cases involving outdated boundary lines, people allocated to the wrong neighborhoods or other processing errors that can be fixed without collecting new data.
"Overall it's an accurate census, and we stand by the census count," Ms. Boyer said.
In recent decades, the peak for challenges was 6,600, or 17 percent of all U.S. jurisdictions, in 1990, when the census missed 4 million people, including 5 percent of all blacks and Hispanics.
In 2000, roughly 1,200 jurisdictions, or 3 percent, contested the count. The net change due to census challenges that year was just 2,700 people.
The challenges won't affect congressional apportionment and redistricting, but they can affect how federal money is handed out. Population-based federal money goes for programs such as health care, roads and schools. About 60 percent is devoted to Medicaid.
There are other effects. In Detroit, the city's overall 25 percent decline over the last decade to 713,777 people put the city below the important threshold of 750,000, the level to qualify for some state and federal aid programs, said Mayor Dave Bing, who is challenging the count.
In terms of jobs, "Businesses might underinvest in a community because they couldn't see the true size of the market, say, for a grocery store," adds Andrew Reamer, a George Washington University public policy professor who wrote a report on the subject for the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank. "The revenue from federal aid and other sources means cities may be able to borrow less, reduce taxes, or spend it on a park or new highway turnoff."