Census undercounted Detroit neighborhoods by as much as 8.1% in 2020, researchers say

Hayley Harding
The Detroit News

Detroit's population was likely undercounted by 8.1% in certain neighborhoods during the 2020 Census, new research from the University of Michigan and Wayne State University showed, a problem that has ramifications for how much funding the city can get in certain federal programs.

If that pattern holds true across the city, researchers say, the population could have been undercounted by "tens of thousands" of people.

Mayor Mike Duggan estimated Thursday that the population was closer to 700,000 people, but the Census Bureau put Detroit's 2020 population at 639,111 when it released numbers earlier this year. Detroit had the lowest self-response rate to the Census among all cities with at least 500,000 residents.

Researchers said Duggan reached out to them and asked them to look at the results. Luke Shaefer, professor of public policy at UM and director of the university's Poverty Solutions initiative, noted that 2019 Census estimates put the city at roughly 670,000 people. Such a decline was "anomalous and implausible," according to the report.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan argued during a news conference Thursday that the federal government did not follow its own U.S. Census Bureau policy for non-response follow-up in Detroit and is considering a lawsuit over an alleged undercount of the city, on Thursday afternoon, December 16, 2021.

A miscount jeopardizes potentially "a huge amount" of federal dollars needed for programs in the city, Duggan said, including money that would be allocated to programs for health care, school lunches and other critical programs.

Researchers from UM and Wayne State audited 10 Detroit census block groups, which is a measure used by the Census Bureau that usually includes between 600 and 3,000 people. They both used data from an independent canvas they conducted and from the United States Postal Service to see where potential undercounts might have happened.

They found that occupied housing units were likely off by hundreds of people over several neighborhoods. Researcher Jeffrey Morenoff, a professor of sociology at UM and a faculty affiliate of the UM Population Studies Center, said at that magnitude, the undercount makes Detroit an outlier not only regionally but nationally in terms of undercounting.

"The U.S. government has inflicted an inequity of monumental proportions on the people of the city of Detroit," Mayor Mike Duggan said during a news conference on Thursday. He said the bureau defied its own policies of returning to homes as many as six times to try to get an accurate count for a household, often knocking on a door just once.

The Census Bureau did not comment on specific claims made by Duggan or researchers but said that "despite facing a pandemic, natural disasters and other unforeseen challenges, the 2020 Census results thus far are in line with overall benchmarks."

Government leaders who have questions about the final numbers can use the count question resolution program, which allows officials to request a review of their official 2020 counts. If the bureau finds an error, they issue a notice and update the totals used to build population estimates. The bureau begins accepting challenges on Jan. 3.

The bureau is in the process of conducting its post-count survey, called the post-enumeration survey, which involves independently surveying the population to estimate the number of people missed or otherwise counted incorrectly. Those results are expected in the first quarter of next year, the bureau said.

Duggan claimed Thursday that the Census Bureau violated its own policies by not knocking on doors an appropriate number of times. The bureau knew the city had a low response rate but still prioritized outlying areas before turning to Detroit, Duggan said, which hurt the city when the count was cut short.

He said he believed it was an intentional choice not to count Detroit thoroughly.

"If the census workers would have just followed the postal workers down the street, they would have found more houses," Duggan said. "The incompetence here is beyond belief."

John Roach, the mayor's spokesman, said Thursday that he didn't believe a challenge like this had been mounted at least since Coleman Young was mayor and the city looked about to dip below a million residents. After a challenge there, the Census Bureau raised the city's population estimate from 970,000 to over one million. Other counts have been taken largely "at face value," he said.

It is difficult to estimate the demographic characteristics of those not counted, experts say, but other research indicates that it tends to be populations of color and poorer people that are undercounted.

Duggan on Thursday invited two Census workers to speak to their experience as part of the counting. Clois Foster, who was a census captain for the city before becoming an enumerator for the federal government, said she was doing proxy counts after a single knock even though the bureau’s policy is to knock between three and six times.

“I was doing a lot of guessing as far as trying to get a good count,” said Foster, a Detroit resident. “That’s not a good way to get a good count, guessing.”

U.S. Census enumerators Clois Foster, left, and Brenda Jett, both of Detroit, discuss the 2020 census count, Thursday afternoon, December 16, 2021. Researchers at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University discuss new evidence suggesting a consequential undercount of Detroit's population in the 2020 census, during a press conference at the U-M Detroit Center on Woodward in Detroit.

She said she was sent to outlying suburbs of the city and asked to go out of state even though she knew Detroit wasn’t accurately counted yet. Foster said she knew how many dollars were at stake if things weren't counted correctly, which is part of the reason it frustrated her to feel like the work was incomplete.

Brenda Jett, another enumerator, detailed technology problems that made it difficult to track even the places where census workers were able to visit. From using small smartphones to frozen databases that made it impossible to do any of the required work, she said it was difficult to help count Detroit even before she was offered hundreds of dollars to work in other cities instead.

"We really need every dollar," she said. "There are so many services that come our way because of the census. It's not just something that you get that one year — it goes on for 10, 15 years some of the things we get."

The 2020 release marked the seventh-straight population decline for the city since 1950, when census numbers put Detroit at nearly 1.85 million residents. The city fell from the 24th largest city in the country to 27th in 2020, coming in behind Oklahoma City, Boston, Portland and Las Vegas.

Duggan said in August, when Census numbers were released, that he believed the city was undercounted. He pointed to numbers from DTE Energy, that noted there were nearly 280,000 residential households paying electric bills but that census figures showed the city had only 254,000 occupied households. 

The mayor said there was not a precedent where there was an undercount done "in such an intentional way." Morenoff said that he felt the undercount was "egregious" and was so far off that it "did not happen by chance."

He said researchers found that even in some of Detroit's most stable neighborhoods, there were red flags because "it didn't seem at all possible that you would see vacancy rates jump up as high as they did in some of these areas." The trend was even worse in less stable neighborhoods, he added.

It is possible certain neighborhoods were overcounted, Morenoff told The News, making him reluctant to say whether the entire city was undercounted by 8%. But he said he hopes to learn more if funding comes through for the research to continue.

The city is appealing to the Department of Commerce, Duggan said, and if that does not work, the city plans to go to federal court over the undercount. He said he expects a revision to the final number. Duggan doesn't want to sue the federal government, he said, but that he wanted to see a correction to "a terrible injustice."

"We need to make sure this doesn't happen in America again," Duggan said.