You're Not There

Have you been feeling transparent lately? Has a barista looked right through you, as if he couldn't see you there at the counter, trembling with caffeine need? Have you felt, perhaps, like Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, as he watched his image in the family photo dissolve? If so, don't be alarmed; there's a perfectly good explanation. You must be one of the 55,000 San Francisco residents the federal government swears doesn't exist.

It's an odd and little-noticed fact: The state of California and the U.S. Census Bureau can't agree on the most basic population statistic for our city. The state believes that S.F. gained about 18,000 residents between 2000 and 2005, while the feds say the city lost more than 37,000 people in that same time period.

They've got roughly the same count for the number of squealing babies who entered the world here, as well as similar numbers for people who shuffled off the mortal coil. It's during all those years in between the two events, however, when people insist on moving about, that the demographers lose track of them.

The folks who care about such things (i.e., bureaucrats and demographers) believe that the state figures are more accurate, but say the reasons are due to technique rather than ideology. “It's all methodological,” sighs Chuck Purvis, who has studied the population estimates for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. “I don't even understand the differences in methodologies between what the state measures and what the Census Bureau looks at.” The best guess going around is that the state has a more accurate count of the number of housing units constructed in the city each year, which leads to better population estimates — because apartments are easier to count than people.

Some worry that the city can't afford to sneer at the Census Bureau's estimates, since every human being equals a couple of federal dollars to fund programs like community development block grants — which, in turn, finance a bevy of social welfare programs, like low-income housing developments and services for children, seniors, the homeless, and people with disabilities. “It leaves you scratching your head,” says Purvis. “How do you allocate community development block grants when you have these imprecise estimates?”

The Mayor's Office of Community Development, which manages the grant distributions, didn't return calls for this story. But a quick review of the figures shows that the city has already been affected. In 2001 San Francisco received $25.8 million from the feds. By this year, the amount had dropped to $21.9 million. Translation: The city is trying to serve more people with less money, and no one in city government seems to be doing anything about it. Come to think of it, maybe that's why you're feeling invisible.

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