spirit of Detroit

The 2020 census undercounted 10 census blocks in Detroit suggesting that tens of thousands of Detroiters could have gone undercounted during the decennial tally, according to researchers from the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.

An audit released by the universities found that the 2020 census undercounted the number of residential units across some blocks by 8%, missing an estimated 964 Detroiters.

“If you extrapolate that to the rest of the city, and if the rest of the city was undercounted at a similar rate, you would have a magnitude in the tens of thousands of people who are not counted,” said Jeffrey Morenoff, U-M professor of sociology and public policy, and faculty affiliate of Poverty Solutions initiative, during a news conference Thursday.

Mayor Mike Duggan said he plans to appeal to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and if a revision doesn’t happen that way, he’ll take it to federal court.

“The U.S. government has inflicted an inequity of monumental proportion on the people of the city of Detroit. All we want as Detroiters is to be counted. They had one job and they missed by a huge number,” Duggan said.

The analysis comes from U.S. Postal Service data for 10 neighborhoods and canvassing in five of those census blocks, along with 2015 to 2019 American Community Survey data.


In “stable” neighborhoods, or those with with low rates of vacancy and higher homeownership, the audit found that occupancy rates are six to 15% higher than 2020 census rates.

In Detroit’s Boston Edison neighborhood, canvassing by WSU researchers found a 95% occupancy rate and USPS data suggests a similar 94%. Meanwhile, the census rate amounted to about 85%.

“There really are no comparisons to the experience that Detroit had,” Morenoff said, referring to a census undercount.

Census results are consequential — they determine how $1.5 trillion in federal spending is divvied up, congressional seats, states’ votes in the Electoral College and redistricting.

“Hundreds of billions of dollars are allocated every year from the federal government to states and localities based on the census and annual estimates, funding that goes to food and housing assistance, community development block grants, childcare and early education and many other essential programs,” said H. Luke Shaefer, director of Poverty Solutions and a professor of public policy and social work.

According to census data released in August, the state’s largest city saw continued population loss for the seventh decade in a row. The population declined 10.5% to 639,111, the decennial results showed. Still, the loss is less than it was a decade ago. Between 2000 and 2010, Detroit saw its population plummet by 25%.

Although Detroit remains majority Black, the African American population fell to 493,212 in 2020, down from 586,573 in 2010, according to census data. The data showed an uptick in the non-Hispanic white, Hispanic or Latino and non-Hispanic Asian population as well.

Duggan in August said he planned to challenge the 2020 census results by “pursuing our legal remedies to get Detroit an accurate count.” Last year, Duggan and U.S Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, expressed concerns about an undercount.

“We expect a revision,” Duggan said Thursday.

Duggan is not the first Detroit official to fight a census tally. Officials for decades have argued that Detroit has been undercounted. The late Mayor Coleman Young successfully fought preliminary census estimates in 1990. The 2000 census results revealed the city’s population dipping below 1 million, despite the efforts and complaints by then Mayor Dennis Archer. Former Mayor Dave Bing vowed to fight results during the last decennial count in 2010, however the 713,777 tally remained.

Detroit had the highest non-response rate among the 50 largest cities at 51%, Duggan said. Former President Donald Trump’s decision to cut the census count short prevented follow up to get an accurate tally, he said. Instead of the standard six visits per home, many Detroit homes got one to two visits, he said.

The 2020 census faced a number of hurdles, including delayed in-person outreach in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Census Bureau will give governments the opportunity to request a review of 2020 housing counts for potential processing errors Jan. 3, 2022 through June 30, 2023. The deadline for the bureau to provide results of those cases is Sept. 30, 2023.

Free Press staff writers Dana Afana, Christine MacDonald and Kristi Tanner contributed to this report. 

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and BridgeDetroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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