Detroiters who fled to burbs during pandemic are hardest for Census to count

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Downtown Detroiters aren’t responding to the 2020 Census at the rate of other city neighborhoods.

With a 48.6 percent response rate, the City of Detroit is doing all it can to get Detroiters to respond to the 2020 Census but the ‘easiest-to-count’ populations are among the least likely to respond.   

According to the City census data map, downtown Detroit, Midtown and Corktown — neighborhoods that have plenty of new housing and residents — have some of the lowest census responses in the city, ranging between 25 percent and 40 percent. 

The low numbers are unexpected because the demographics of residents in those areas — mostly white, socioeconomically advantaged with easy access to the internet — are typically those who respond to the Census, according to researchers like Diana Elliott at the Urban Institute.

So why aren’t these easy-to-reach residents responding?

Downtown residents have gone ‘home’

The coronavirus pandemic, which has caused more than 1,000 deaths in Wayne County alone as of Monday, is one reason for the city’s low census response rate.

“COVID is making everything more of a challenge than it was before,” said Victoria Kovari, executive director of Detroit’s 2020 Census Campaign.

Some Detroiters fled to the suburbs during the pandemic. However, the residents who can or whose families live there, likely live in areas such as Downtown and Midtown, which would explain the low response rate. 

“We know from interviews with organizations and residents in apartment buildings that a large number of residents simply seem to have gone ‘home’ during the pandemic as companies like GM, Quicken Loans, Blue Cross Blue Shield, etc. allowed their employees to work remotely,” Kovari explained. “So they aren’t getting our mailings and they aren’t getting geographically targeted social media advertising.”

Larger downtown residential buildings have been quiet and parking lots are two-thirds empty.

Midtown is facing the same concern and has the lowest response rate — 25 percent  — because it’s compounded by the cancellation of Wayne State University classes. 

Many residents who left the city did so just as the census was getting underway.  According to U.S. Postal Service records, in March, USPS received more than 3,100 mail-forwarding requests to cities neighboring Detroit, a 30 percent increase from this year’s monthly average.

This phenomenon isn’t specific to Detroit. According to data from Harris Poll, almost 40 percent of Americans were considering moving to less densely populated areas in April because of the pandemic and due to rapidly rising rents and changes in the job market. 

Suburban addresses cause confusion 

The census counts where a person is living on April 1, which was during the eye of the pandemic storm and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order so it caused and continues to create confusion among residents on how to respond.

According to the city website, the only address that matters to the Census is where a person actually lives where they eat and sleep on a regular basis not necessarily what is on their license or where they are registered to vote.  

“There is a lot of confusion about which address to use, since the census form says where you lived as of April 1, right in the middle of the chaos for Detroit,” Kovari explained.

When in doubt, city officials advise people to fill out the form, especially if they live in Detroit. 

The Census Bureau has data that correct double counts to ensure they don’t log more than one response from the same household. 

Kovari reassured that there is no penalty or “trouble” by responding as a Detroit resident, “especially in times like these.” 

High auto insurance rates deter residents from responding

Detroit may be the Motor City but it’s notorious for having the highest auto insurance rates of any metro area in the nation.  Compared to the surrounding suburbs, Detroiters’ car insurance can double or triple in the city, especially when the drivers are young. 

A 2015 study by Pinnacle Actuarial Resources looked at insurance claims and premiums from the largest insurers in the city. According to the study, Detroiters on average paid twice as much as their neighbors in the suburbs. Detroit annual premiums cost around $3,400 in comparison to the $1,700 for the metro region.

For this reason, as well as high city income tax, some residents have realized that they can have lower rates simply by using a suburban address, a common practice among some Detroiters. The repercussions are paid by the city itself — and the census is a prime example. 

Because auto insurance fraud is no joke — a felony insurance fraud could involve a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a fine of $50,000, according to Steven Gursten, an attorney at Michigan Auto Law — many people who use suburban addresses respond to the census as a resident of the city written on their driver’s license not necessarily the city they actually live – Detroit. 

This means neighboring cities are more likely to get crucial federal funding that should be coming to Detroit to help fund programs such as housing, education, school lunches, Medicaid and so much more. 

But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the census information cannot be shared with anybody — no federal government agency, no company, no individual, for 70 years. Census workers are sworn to uphold this confidentiality. 

Kovari wants to make it clear that “there is no fear of repercussions.”

“If you’re not paying your income tax, or using your parents address for insurance purposes or whatever – that doesn’t matter to the census,” said Kovari. 

Downtown businesses encourage census response

The fact is that $675 billion in annual federal aid is at stake and the low census response doesn’t just negatively impact residents but businesses as well. That’s why the Detroit Regional Chamber wants to make it clear that business owners and operators can help achieve an accurate 2020 Census by encouraging their employees and customers to complete their census questionnaires, even if their employees are working from suburban homes. 

Quicken Loans, a large employer in the city, conducted a census outreach effort not only to employees, but to encourage the community at large. 

“At the Rock Family of Companies, we believe residents have an important responsibility to participate in the census as it helps determine the distribution of public funds which will advance sectors critical to Detroiters’ success, including housing, employment and education,” said Laura Grannemann, vice president of the Quicken Loans Community Fund. “Being counted is critical to our community’s long-term success, and we are proud to support these efforts.”

The Quicken Loans Community Fund has provided assistance to the city’s census efforts, including a significant financial contribution and active, ongoing communication to both team members and external stakeholders regarding the census’ importance. 

Helen Stojic, director of Corporate Affairs at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, also said the company has communicated to their employees about the importance of the 2020 census in hopes of increasing responses. 

City officials have sent out  targeted social media advertising, put up billboards, reached out to owners of apartment buildings, plastered posters inside elevators encouraging people to respond. 

They plan to push census response until the last minute. 

Kovari made it clear that, before the deadline, officials plan a targeted last-minute outreach to residents — with a new sense of urgency to fill out the census, before the window closes.

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