What’s in a number?
A lot, if it is a federal Census number.
The U.S. Census Bureau and the city of Lawrence are on two different pages when it comes to how many people actually reside in Lawrence. When the Census data was released earlier this year, it found 87,643 people lived in the city. Lawrence planners do their own estimates each year and had expected at least 92,000 people to be counted in the city. That’s a difference of more than 4,000 people or nearly 5 percent. To put it another way, the Census found that the city’s population actually is what we thought it was back in 2004. According to the bureau, population growth in the city and county during the decade of the 2000s was the slowest since the days of the Great Depression.
All this is particularly important when you consider that the Census numbers are used for everything from determining our representation levels in Congress to our eligibility for a variety of state and federal grants. One group — the Brookings Institution — estimates that every uncounted person in Kansas cost local government about $1,100 per year in lost federal funding.
But there is more at stake than just money. These Census numbers raise an important question: Have we been deluding ourselves for a decade? In the decades of the 1980s and the 1990s, Lawrence was truly a leader in terms of population growth in Kansas. We were found to be an attractive place that produced a high quality of life and good access to both Kansas City and Topeka. Certainly, we needed to create more local jobs, but we at least were a community of choice for many new residents.
For too long, too many people have assumed that our standing as a community of choice was rock solid. We still have not figured out how to produce nearly enough local jobs, and now the Census Bureau is providing compelling evidence that our standing in northeast Kansas is falling. This is unacceptable.
City leaders are not yet buying that the Census data is correct. They believe that the Census Bureau simply failed to count some living units in the city. City staff members are beginning to gather data to try to prove that point. The city should make this effort a high priority. Here is hoping that the Census Bureau is incorrect, and that the community has posted more growth than the Census Bureau indicates.
City leaders, however, need to prepare for the possibility that the Census Bureau count is right. There are indications that the city’s population estimates haven’t done enough to account for the rise in vacancy rates throughout the decade. The Census Bureau found more than 2,500 vacant living units in the city when it did its count. Some real estate professionals have said they don’t doubt that number.
The Census Bureau found that inner-city, older neighborhoods in Lawrence lost population during the last decade, while neighborhoods on the edge of the city gained. The numbers are an early sign of the traditional “donut hole” that has left the core of many cities desolate places. It is imperative that the city determine whether these Census numbers are a true trend or simply a false reading.
A basic responsibility of local government is to conduct solid planning that gives a community its best chance to be successful in the future. That will be a difficult task for Lawrence if we can’t even agree on how many people live here today.
Unfortunately, Lawrence today is paying the price of a deadly disease called “complacency,” which has infected the city and many of its leaders over the past 10 to 20 years.