Detroiters will lose millions of dollars in federal funds due to what Mayor Mike Duggan called “systemic racism” in the government’s approach to officially determine the city’s population.
The U.S. Census Bureau announced in March that its 2020 survey undercounted Black and Hispanic populations, while overcounting white and Asian Americans. Duggan said Detroit, a majority-Black city, was uniquely affected by challenges facing the count. He’s seeking help from Congress to appeal the results after commissioning a study that suggested Detroit’s population data may be off by 8%.
“There are a lot of cities that were undercounted; I don’t know of another city where the actual on the ground follow-up was more screwed up than it was here,” Duggan said Monday.
U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, held a Monday field hearing in the city with Duggan, researchers and community advocates focused on local perceptions of the shortcomings with the 2020 Census process. The senator, who chairs a committee tasked with oversight of the Census Bureau, said he came away from the hearing convinced “there is an awful lot of data to show that there was an undercount” in Detroit.
“This impacts the residents of the City of Detroit in a significant way,” Peters said. “Each individual who is counted represents roughly $1,800 in federal resources each year. The money goes into infrastructure, health care and education programs. We’ve got to make sure we get this right.”
The 2020 census recorded Detroit’s population at roughly 639,111 residents, a 10.5% decrease from its prior count a decade earlier. In 2019, the Census Bureau estimated Detroit had 670,000 residents. Duggan has said he believes that the city’s population is closer to 700,000, which would represent Detroit’s first population increase in seven decades.
Duggan filed a formal appeal earlier this year challenging the results, but the mayor said the Census Bureau hasn’t moved the process forward. Detroit, he said, is also unable to contest the number of occupied housing units, which Duggan believes represents a large number of people who were allegedly not counted. He argues that the count is off by 50,000 people.
The mayor said Detroit stands to lose $10 million per year in state revenue sharing and even more in federal funds. He said the Census Bureau “engaged in systemic racism” by failing to invest the resources needed to prevent the undercount of Black and brown residents who rely on social programs that receive funding based on population data.
“We have leadership at the Census Bureau that doesn’t seem to have any urgency to correct the racial inequities that are there,” Duggan said Monday.
Census Bureau Director Robert Santos last year became the first Latino to lead the federal agency. Santos told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing that the bureau needs “more transparency and independence to build public trust” after the 2020 count.
University of Michigan and Wayne State University researchers conducted an independent analysis and found the Census Bureau undercounted housing units in Detroit by 8% in the areas they studied. Jeffrey Morenoff, a professor of public policy and sociology at UM, said if this trend happened at a similar magnitude across the city, it would mean the census missed tens of thousands of Detroiters.
“We have challenged as best we can; we feel like we’ve provided good evidence,” Morenoff said. “We could bring more evidence to bear, if the rules allowed.”
Peters said recent conversations with Santos left him feeling optimistic about the chances of expanding the appeal process. Peters said the bureau created a process to review the number of people living in group quarters like nursing homes, colleges, prisons and shelters in response to past concerns he’s raised.
Duggan said data from the U.S Postal Service and utility companies are potential sources of evidence that houses marked as vacant during the census are actually occupied. He believes it wouldn’t be difficult to prove more people are living in the city if the Census Bureau was able to hear appeals of occupied housing units.
“I’ve noticed with interest that the Pentagon has acknowledged the possibility of UFOs. To me, the Census Bureau numbers in Detroit are even more remarkable – they’ve proven the existence of ghosts,” Duggan said. “DTE has 280,000 housing units that are paying their light and gas bill, the Census Bureau says we have fewer than 255,000 households. Who’s occupying these other 25,000 households? There’s two possibilities: We’ve either been invaded by a group of ghosts or the Census Bureau data is wrong.”
Duggan objected to recently-released 2021 census estimates that pin Detroit’s population at 632,464.
Any corrections to the 2020 count won’t change congressional apportionment counts or redistricting data, but the updated count would be used to calculate its annual population estimates, and corrected counts can help governments plan and apply for future funding.
Speakers representing the city’s Hispanic, Arab and Muslim communities discussed multiple factors affecting the once-in-a-decade count, including a global pandemic, rushed timeline and procedures, mistrust of government, language barriers and reporting categories that don’t apply to certain ethnic groups.
They also argued the Census Bureau’s field operation in Detroit started late, ended prematurely, was inadequately staffed, poorly managed and lacked tools to accurately count certain groups. Duggan said the Census Bureau snubbed Detroit when it came to sending out resources to follow up with non-responsive households and key leadership positions weren’t filled.
Brenda Jett and Clois Foster are Detroit residents who worked as enumerators during the 2020 census. Jett said it became clear that the city’s count would be inaccurate after seeing how disorganized the process was. Foster said information on the 100 houses she had to visit each day was routinely late or incomplete, causing scheduling issues.
Teams also ran into problems with collecting information from Detroiters who didn’t speak English or were wary of government information gathering efforts.
“Especially with people of color, it is very hard to get them to fill out anything, because they are scared the government will take their information and use it against them,” Foster said.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s post-enumeration report found the Black population nationwide was undercounted by 3.3% and the Hispanic population was undercounted by 5%. These undercounts were higher than the 2010 error rate for Black (2%) and Hispanic (1.5%) Americans.
The post-enumeration survey found a 0.14% error rate for Michigan’s total population. The study does not look at undercounts at a more local level.
Maha Freij, president and CEO for the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, said “politicization” of the count created fear and mistrust in the census among Arab Detroiters. Freij also advocated for creating a specific category for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent to identify themselves. The Trump administration blocked its inclusion on the 2020 census, forcing those populations to identify as “white” or use the write-in option.
“Individuals from the MENA region were mis-recognized on the decennial census,” Freij said. “They continue to be misunderstood, understudied and formally excluded from the policymaking process.”
Duggan said the Census Bureau can’t accurately count vulnerable populations without the help of advocacy organizations and other groups with strong local connections. Multiple speakers said the Census Bureau needs to prioritize those partnerships sooner than ever when the 2030 count comes around.
Detroit mounted a $3 million campaign to ensure as many people were counted as possible in the 2020 census. The massive effort included a multimedia advertising campaign, direct mailings, phone banks and other efforts. However, Detroit’s response rate was the lowest of any American city with a population greater than 500,000. The city had a response rate of 51% while Michigan’s statewide response rate was 71%.
Morenoff said research shows areas with lower self-response rates tend to have a worse undercount.
Detroit’s population has decreased in every census since 1950, when 1.8 million people lived here. The 2020 data showed Detroit experienced the smallest loss of residents since it first started dropping after the 1960 census. While census data shows Detroit lost 74,666 residents from 2010 to 2020, the city dropped nearly 237,500 people in the prior decade.
Detroit remains Michigan’s largest city and it’s ranked 27th in the nation. The census found 77% of the city’s residents are Black and 11% are white. Detroit lost 93,692 Black residents and 7,351 white residents in the last decade, according to the 2020 census.