Saturday, February 18, 2012

The politics of (really) small numbers

So here is a story I guess I have to comment on.  See the Trib: Zelienople appeals census count in effort to get more money

I'm warning you up front.. for all but the obsessive readers here, go back to sleep now!

Let's start with the nominal issues up front.  Does the Census make mistakes and can they correct them?  The first question is obviously yes.  It's a big country and lots of people residing in a lot of different modes mean some numbers are not perfect.   Here in Pittsburgh the biggest recent error I have mentioned on occasion is how in 2000 the Census folks had some systematic errors in counting of people in group quarters, things like dormitories and jails.  The Allegheny County Jail had moved locations between 1990 and 2000 and the official census statistics to this day reflect that error.  I had thought folks were correcting that and by the time I discovered that nobody had pushed that forward it was too late.  The confusion that results spurs a question I get from somewhere out there every few months for me. Makes a big difference if you are fighting over bragging rights over the population trends in the city's Uptown/Bluff or Downtown neighborhoods.

As an aside... as a result of the error described above you can see the machinations I go through to come up with a definitive count of the population change in Downtown Pittsburgh between 2000 and 2010.

Still..  the 2nd question,  can the Census Bureau fix its mistakes?, gets complicated.  The Census Bureau interprets US law, beginning with Article I, section 2 of the Constitution itself, from precluding any recounting to be done once the census was completed. So it is just not the case that anyone from the census is going to go into Zelienople or anywhere else to make a new enumeration and 'add' people that they didn't catch in 2010.  They will, however, check to see if an error was made in people counted elsewhere ought to be counted.  The only meaningful changes possible are likely again in group quarters populations where some groups may be counted in one location because of say adminsitrative addresses as compared to their physical locations which is what should count. They also have defined the process for all of this and it is the Count Question Resolution (CQR) process. You can further read ALL the changes made thus far to 2010 numbers and it isn't a big list and typically a handful of people per instance being corrected.

Zeliniople with a 2010 population count of 3,812 wants to add at least 188 to get to 4,000. I suspect that would, if successful, be one of the biggest percentage changes they have ever made to a municipality's population via this process. So we will see.    Wells Townwhip in Bradford county is also challenging their 2010 population count via this process, but I am guessing they may have a real case if the Census gnomes missed one of those new 'man camps' out there that only recenly sprung up before Census Day which was April 1 of 2010. 

The overly wonked should be clear on another point.  The process of challenging or correcting the decennial census is very different from the process of challenging annual population estimates which is what you more often see in the news.  The decennial census is intended to be a complete enumeration of the population and is why it is a big process both legally and in sheer effort.  It is an entirely separate census program that pegs a population count estimate on every state/county and municipality every year.  Those annual estimates are just that.. estimates based on a set of administrative data the census collects.  Because they are estimates they are prone to other errors and it is possible to challenge those numbers and get the census to made adjustments if you can make the case to them their methodology did not capture some change going on in your location.  None of that type of correction can take place with the decennial census counts.

The big picture though.   I would have skipped this whole story except for this quote in that article:

"Having a status of an entitlement community, it's like money in the bank. It's gold," Pepe said. "You don't have to compete with anybody else."
Does anyone else see how perverse that logic is in the big picture.  Not a knock on the municipal official there really who is fighting to preserve a revenue stream, but think about what it means really.  Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money is supposed to help severely disadvantaged communities.   You are not supposed to want to be CDBG eligible. You really ought to have a goal to no longer become a CDBG eligible place.   I get it, it's 'gold', but???   and the further statement that "You don't have to compete with anybody else." I am still cogitating on. I'm a bit speechless as yet on the point.

It is a bit more complicated than that of course. The issue at hand is whether Zielenople fell below the bottom size threshold to be eligible for such funds.  So it is not quite the case that it is trying to argue it is poorer than it is.  Presumably the economic conditions are similar whether they are just above or just below 4,000 people and so they don't want to be excluded because of their size.  Does this not get to a Pennsylvania pathology.  Given that Pennsylvania is one of the most fragmented states in the nation when it comes to local government then it follows we have lots of small communities that are similarly too small to be allocated CDBG money directly.  One solution is obvious I guess.  A community below 4,000 folks could merge with another small municipality (and they are almost all small municipalities) and voila... a still pretty small, but CDBG eligible, municipality emerges.

I'm too lazy to go match the data.. but I bet there are other municipalities among the 2,500+ municipalities that went from above, to below, 4,000 people with the recent census.  Likely more in the future.  Certainly a lot of communities already well below 4,000 and this just isn't an issue, but still might be able to become eligible with a merger of some kind.  It does get back to the "don't have to compete" quote mentioned above. It isn't that a community goes from money to no money with a changed population count.  Smaller communities are eligible for a pot of CDBG money allocated by the county or I guess in some cases the state.  That money arguably is competitively allocated among all such smaller communities and is likely the 'competition' being referred to.

If there is an even bigger picture, go back to what I said about whether you want to be a CDBG eligible community in the first place.  For big cities CDBG eligibility is specified to specific census tracts which are generally population groups of 3,000 people give or take.  So think neighborhoods or parts of neighborhoods for the City of Pittsburgh.   Gotta mention assessments I guess, but generally look at changes within the city.  Some of the bigger changes going on in real estate are reflective of fundamental changes in the neighborhoods holistically.   When it comes to CDBG eligibility look at the South Side.    It is likely, anticipated actually, that the income levels of residents in South Side tracts will have jumped in the point that what had been CDBG eligible communities for decades will no longer be CDBG eligible in the near future.  The implications for CDBG funding, and the need for community development efforts as have been so successful there in the past are at the heart of the decision of the South Side Local Development Corporation to disband itself in the future.  It is a dissolution born of success, or at least of completing it's mission. It also is what then leads to the current debate over a future evolution of a post-CDBG institution in the neighborhood which has become the debate over a "Neighborhood Improvement Zone" in some form and that is an argument all about money in the end.  So it all comes back around.

and if you read all of that and it is still Saturday morning... go back to sleep!


Anonymous BrianTH said...

I wonder how CDBG law feels about non-contiguous municipalities.

Saturday, February 18, 2012 11:07:00 AM  
Anonymous The Wiz said...

The point of the whole exercise for that wonderful public servant is that by getting more CDBG money said official is counting on the money helping him get re-elected. He will campaign by saying things like "I was successful in bringing more money to the community" and then mentioning the specific project that was funded. Better yet, he will get a photo in the local rag so everyone will see how good he is. Plus the recipient of said grant will feel obligated to make a sizable donation to the war chest of this wonderful servant. Nice system, that walking around money is.

And it is a good example of the entitlement society we have become. No need to feel the least bit of guilt for taking such aid. In fact, be proud you can do it. It the New American Way.

Saturday, February 18, 2012 9:12:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

I hate to point out that the quote appears to be from the borough manager.. so he is not a politician, or at the very least not elected. Probably not allowed to take political donations.

Also.. while neither agreeing nor disagreeing with that geneeral opine, I would point out that the Zelienople elected government is all Republican. So curious all around.

Saturday, February 18, 2012 10:56:00 PM  
Anonymous The Wiz said...

It is still his priority to keep his job...and bringing in money will help him do so. And he has to do so with the help of the elected politicos. And all of them will use the process to maintain their positions of power.

This is the way of the world, not restricted to any one political party. I don't recall ever elevating the Republican Party as a paragon of virtue. Neither party is ever going to be up for sainthood and having any one party in complete control for any length of time is a recipe for disaster.

Pittsburgh needs to put Republicans in charge to break the long-term Democratic hold on power. But do not give them(Rep) full power nor keep them at the top for more than ten years. Alternating control between the two parties is the mostly likely pathway to success, IMO

Sunday, February 19, 2012 12:23:00 PM  
Anonymous MH said...

Switching parties is good. National politics could really use a realignment in addition.

Monday, February 20, 2012 9:21:00 PM  
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