Baltimore — The U.S. Census Bureau’s annual population estimates have rarely brought good news for the city of Baltimore in recent years. The latest release is no exception.

The city lost 7,346 people, or 1.2 percent of its population, during the 12 months that ended July 1, 2018, according to census figures published Thursday.

The decline, which puts Baltimore’s estimated population at 602,495 as of July 1, 2018, is the biggest loss the city has experienced in a single year since 2001. It also marks the fourth year in a row in which the city’s population has fallen, starting in 2015.

The estimates are extrapolated from the 2010 census using administrative records on births, deaths and other information.

A spokesman for Baltimore’s ex officio mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said the accuracy of the numbers depends on the accuracy of the census count.

“If you don’t do well on that one, that has ramifications for all subsequent years,” said the spokesman, Lester Davis, referring to the 2010 Census.

An appeal of the 2010 Census numbers netted the city an increase of 113 people, but Davis said the true number could be higher because of residents in high-rise complexes not being fully counted.

The 2020 Census is less than a year away.

“That’s where the emphasis is going to be placed at,” he said.

The annual population estimates help federal programs, such as Head Start and Medicaid, determine how much funding to allocate to jurisdictions.

Domestic migration was the main reason for Baltimore’s annual population decline, according to the estimates. Between July 2017 and July 2018, Baltimore lost more than 10,000 residents because more people moved out of the city to other cities and counties than came in from elsewhere in the United States.

International migration, on the other hand, brought nearly 2,000 residents to Baltimore from abroad, including immigrants, students and overseas military personnel, according to Census Bureau estimates. The natural increase in population — the difference between births and deaths — was 1,037.

Catalina Rodriguez-Lima, director of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, said the international migration numbers did not come as a surprise, pointing to earlier census figures showing growth in the city’s Latino and Asian populations and households who speak a language other than English at home.

The Trump administration is seeking to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census form sent to every American household. Lawsuits, including in Maryland, have challenged the addition of the question, saying it will lead to undercounts among noncitizens and communities of color. The Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of June, although a recent appeal filed with the Maryland federal court could accelerate the timeline.

“It’s been difficult to convey the importance of the census to those communities due to the pending process,” Rodriguez-Lima said.

In an emailed statement, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), whose district includes most of the city, said a citizenship question “will imperil the accuracy of the count.”

Cummings, who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, heard testimony from U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in March on how the question was developed.

“Let me be clear, Secretary Ross’ decision to add a citizenship question was unconstitutional and illegal, and I will continue my Committee’s investigation into the matter,” he said in the statement.

International migration also played a major part in population growth statewide, adding 22,575 residents, which outstripped the natural population increase of 19,845 and partially offset domestic population loss of 24,518. As a whole, Maryland added 17,827 residents over the year, a less than 0.3 percent increase, bringing its population to 6,042,718.

Since July 2010, Baltimore has lost more than 18,500 residents, or 3 percent of its population, while its neighbors have seen population gains. From July 2017 to June 2018, all counties in the Baltimore region experienced upticks in population, with the exception of Baltimore County, whose year-over-year numbers remained flat.

Census estimates are adjusted yearly, but adjustments made after decennial censuses like the one next year — which are considered the “gold standard” for comparison, according to Census Bureau demographer Amel Toukabri — can be particularly significant.

For example, in fall 2007, Baltimore’s population figures for 2006 were revised upward after city officials challenged the initial 2006 estimate. The new number implied a slight increase in the city’s population after a half-century of decline — a “reversal of fortune” for the city, in the words of then-Mayor Sheila Dixon.

But that reversal was reversed after the 2010 decennial Census, when census officials reexamined the decade’s population estimates in light of the new population counts, turning 2006’s slight increase into a small decline.

Several places including Baltimore turned out to have inflated population estimates when compared with the census, Toukabri said, because the Census Bureau had accepted all appeals — in almost every case, to revise population estimates upward — from local officials.

“We realized this process had to be streamlined because it wasn’t producing better estimates,” said Toukabri, who now manages the estimates challenge program.

Starting in 2013, the Census Bureau has required more specific criteria from local governments that wish to challenge their population estimates, including a “more rigorous review” of the evidence from local officials, Toukabri said.

A challenge from Baltimore has not been accepted since 2008, according to the challenge program website.

Once data from next year’s census is available, the Census Bureau’s demographers will use the 2020 population counts to assess the accuracy of the estimates, she said.

— Baltimore Sun