Study: Detroit has 2nd lowest census response of 50 big cities

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

As Detroit officials prepare to boost efforts targeting participation in the 2020 Census amid the COVID-19 crisis, a report released Wednesday said its response rate so far is one of the lowest among the country's largest cities.

SmartAsset, a financial technology company, analyzed data to find the states and major U.S. cities with the highest response rates as of May 4. Every 10 years, the population numbers determined by the census helps how federal funding is allocated as well as political representation.

The rankings were released Wednesday.

Out of the 50 most-populous U.S. cities, Detroit had the second-lowest response rate, the group's study found. Some 43% of households in the city, Michigan's largest, had completed their census questionnaires.

The Motor City ranked behind only Miami, which had 42.1%, according to the analysis.

The other cities posting the top 10 lowest rates were Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Boston, Houston, Memphis and Dallas. 

On the other end of the spectrum, according to the SmartAsset study, Louisville, Kentucky, had the highest self-response rate through last week, with 68%. It was followed by cities that all topped 60%: Seattle; San Jose; Colorado Springs; Minneapolis; Portland, Oregon; Omaha; Virginia Beach; San Diego; and Sacramento.

Meanwhile, Michigan was among the 10 states with the highest response rates, the report found.

The standings in Detroit, where officials have mounted an aggressive $1.7 million campaign to boost its response rate, are not surprising given the historically low returns coupled with how the pandemic has hampered outreach, said Vicky Kovari, executive director of the city's 2020 census campaign.

Detroit 2020 Census Campaign executive director Victoria Kovari looks over a Detroit map showing city neighborhoods that were under-counted in the 2010 census.

"The shelter-in-place order has been really difficult to deal with in a city that was already considered the hardest to count in the nation," she told The Detroit News. 

The virus ended in-person canvassing and affected nearly 100 outreach events planned between March, when the first cases emerged in the state, and this month at public places such as churches, block club gatherings and senior living facilities, Kovari said.

Now, with state stay-at-home orders set to expire soon, she said, "we’re going to be basically relaunching our campaign."

Besides social media promotions, a virtual phone bank was started last month with a target of reaching more than 100,000 residents, Kovari said. Door-to-door outreach in neighborhoods is expected to resume in June or July, while volunteers will distribute more fliers, banners and promotional materials at stores as well as other spots.

There are also plans to explore reaching residents through texting and relaunching kiosks for residents to fill out the census form digitally that were housed in buildings shuttered during the pandemic, Kovari said. The city is also tracking response rates by districts.

"We're going to be working our tails off the next four or five months to make sure we meet our goal" of higher participation, she said.

In 2010, only 64% of households in Detroit had submitted their forms prior to the U.S. Census Bureau sending out doorknockers, the lowest rate of any major city.

Mayor Mike Duggan has said Detroit's participation sets the city's long-term trajectory and estimated the poor response cost the city about $300 million over the past decade.

The SmartAsset study also found Detroit ranked last out of 50 cities in responding to the 2020 questionnaire online through early May. 

Kovari said that underscores another major challenge in boosting the city's response rate: lack of internet connectivity. Thinking creatively about how to reach as many people as possible through multiple avenues is key to changing the numbers, she added.

"We’re going to keep trying a lot of different things, looking at works and what doesn’t," Kovari said. "The census form translates into federal funding, and that translates into programs that save people’s lives. We obviously need to get that message across much more broadly and in a lot more corners of the city. ... We’re working every day to engage people's attention."