Officials prepare Metro Detroiters for census, try to ease fears

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit — Like other Michigan residents, Vickey Cobb knows the U.S. census is taken every 10 years and plays a critical role in how much funding flows to public services.

But are the responses safely held and where do the answers get stored? She wondered.

That's why on Monday she joined about 50 other Metro Detroiters at Second Ebenezer Church for a Michigan 2020 Census town hall aimed at clarifying those questions.

"I just wanted to find out about the entire process," said Cobb, who has attended the church for nearly 19 years. "Any time you can get good information, then it’s beneficial."

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, Detroit 2020 Census Executive Director Vicki Kovari and Michigan 2020 Census Executive Director Kerry Ebersole Singh speak during an event at Second Ebenezer Church.

The forum, which included state and local officials, was the latest in a series of statewide gatherings as the 2020 Census approaches to inform residents of its importance and relevance.  

It comes as coordinators continue to seek census takers and work with community groups to ensure word spreads to all people living in Michigan as of April 1 are counted.

Notices about responding to the 2020 Census will start hitting mailboxes March 12, event coordinators said. This year, for the first time, Michiganians have three ways to respond: online, phone or mail.

"We are leaving no stone unturned in this campaign," Victoria Kovari, Detroit 2020 Census executive director, told the audience at Second Ebenezer.

She and others stressed how data from filling out the form reverberates across the city, county and state.

Every year, the government distributes more than $675 billion to states and communities based on Census Bureau data, according to federal officials.

In 2016, Michigan received nearly $30 billion in federal funding, including $1.1 billion for highway planning and construction, $16 billion for health programs, $5 billion for education, $2.3 billion for food assistance programs and $694 million for housing assistance.

The data also determines how many representatives each state receives in Congress and is used to redraw district boundaries as well as help businesses plan where to open, federal officials said.

"This is really about our communities," said Kerry Ebersole Singh, Michigan 2020 Census executive director.

Highlighting the need to ensure an accurate count in Detroit through reaching underrepresented populations such as immigrants and young children, panelists tried to dispel myths about the census, which this year has nine questions. Immigration status is not among them.

Addressing concerns about confidentiality, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said: "Your information for this form will not be shared with anyone. And every effort is being made … to protect your personal information."

Information is stored in a way that isolates it from the internet, lessening the threat of online hacking, she said. There are stiff penalties for sharing census data, such as prison time and a hefty fine, and the answers cannot be sent to law enforcement authorities or insurers, Nessel said.

"It literally does not get shared with anybody. ... Your data your information will remain secure," she said.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said that while residents might remain wary, "we need to remember that in order for us to have the power to have the government truly reflect what we want and who we are, we must participate in every opportunity. ... This is an all-hands-on-deck moment."

The message empowered Kim McDade, a Highland Park resident who attended the town hall.

"I have a lot more accurate information," she said. "It’s very important to hear it firsthand."