Detroit residents can respond to the census by phone, mail or online. (Photo by Ralph Jones)

Tamuk Scruggs hasn’t responded to the 2020 census and he says that he doesn’t plan to. 

Scruggs, a Detroit activist and author, understands the process and purpose of the census but despite all the marketing and promises, he says he doesn’t think that a lot of urban communities see the benefits and funding from the government. 

Scruggs, formerly incarcerated, and his sentiment, aren’t isolated especially among underserved groups and minority populations who lack trust in government and draw no distinction between local and federal agencies. 

Mistrust of government and where money ends up

“Among the Black population, there is a general mistrust of the government – including the city’s government – that the money is not going to go where it’s promised or it’s not going to help their particular community.” said Hayg Oshagan, director of New Michigan Media and a professor of media studies at Wayne State University.

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The city’s population is almost 80 percent Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which means mistrust toward the government is higher in cities like Detroit and the risk of being undercounted and underfunded naturally increases. 

Mass incarceration and over-policing are some of the issues informing the Black Lives Matter protests that have gone on across the nation and in Detroit since May. 

The decennial Census is a population count that happens once a decade. Scruggs, who’s 49, says he’s seen at least three Census collections happen over his own lifetime while he’s watched the decline of his community happen with the promise that if residents fill the census out more money is going to come to the neighborhood, come to the schools and help those who need it most. 

Based on state and city population figures, federal government funding will be distributed to programs such as housing, education and school lunches, health care and employment. 

Demetrius Knuckles El, who is formerly incarcerated, a Detroit resident and a member of the Moorish Science Temple of America believes that the census “is another means for government officials to get money allocated for their pockets” under the premise of helping schools and communities. 

“Which schools in Detroit got safer? Which schools in Detroit got built?” Knuckles El, questioned. “I know a lot of them have been torn down.

“There are people that really want to believe in the census, but when you go and look at the reality then you understand that there’s really no point,” Scruggs said. “The only thing that happens is that the money that is supposed to be funneled to our areas for the purpose of helping the community, ends up not getting there or the funds get dispersed and then someone else in a higher position ends up embezzling the money, which ends up negatively affecting everybody in the community.” 

There’s a disengagement with politics in general when a community has been neglected for so long, Oshagan says. The “my vote doesn’t count” sentiment can cause an overall disengagement that trickles into a lack of interest in the census as well. 

Fear of losing privacy 

“We met one man who said, ‘I was in jail and I don’t want people knowing where I am,’” Raquel Garcia, executive director at Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision told BridgeDetroit. 

Garcia canvassed in southwest Detroit, hoping to encourage residents to respond to the census and explain its importance. “People, especially in that situation, do often want to be left alone. There’s a real fear of loss of privacy.”

“The problem is when you don’t trust the government it doesn’t matter how many times you’re told that the information is confidential because you’d rather not put yourself in any kind of risk.” – Hayg Oshagan, Wayne State professor

Oshagan explained that groups that have a fear in general are highly unlikely to respond to the census. There can be multiple reasons why someone may fear losing privacy. 

“For example, if there is someone who is undocumented in the home or if someone hasn’t paid child support, or if there are too many people living in an address compared to what a rental agreement allows or what Social Services allows, if there’s food assistance based on a certain number of people in the home but that’s not the number living there – these are things that people don’t want to share or don’t want the government to know so it’s a reason people avoid filling out the census,” Oshagan said. 

Victoria Kovari, who is leading Detroit’s 2020 Census effort has made it clear that “there is no fear of repercussions.” According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the census information cannot be shared — with no federal government agency, no company, no individual, for 70 years. Census workers are sworn to uphold this confidentiality. 

However, Oshagan says, “the problem is when you don’t trust the government it doesn’t matter how many times you’re told that the information is confidential because you’d rather not put yourself in any kind of risk.”

A bit of hope

As of Tuesday, Detroit’s overall response rate is 49.8 percent, according to the city’s 2020 Census Response Rate Dashboard

Knuckels El didn’t fill out the census form while he was in prison, but he confirmed that he did respond to the 2020 Census. 

Most people don’t realize that when answering the census questionnaire, residents can skip any question they don’t want to answer or do not know the answer to by leaving it blank or simply clicking next twice on the online survey. This way, if people have reservations about sharing information, leaving some answers blank is better than not answering at all, which is what Knuckles El decided to do. 

“They have race classification, but I didn’t classify myself as any race,” Knuckles El said, explaining that he left some answers blank. “I don’t label myself or categorize myself using the language the government uses to demean me. And if someone needs help, they need help and race or categories shouldn’t matter.” 

Machelle Pearson, who was also formerly incarcerated and completed a parole, said “I know the system still works against us.”

She’s had encounters with law enforcement for things as simple as “an inappropriate license plate,” which she explained was a temporary plate that came with her vehicle. However, she did confirm that she still filled out her census information online and most of her co-workers, friends and neighbors either already responded to the census or were planning to. 

The census deadline is Sept. 30. 

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