Detroit, Michigan leaders push to challenge census count

Hannah Mackay Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — The results of the 2020 census count and the consequences on Michigan cities have state lawmakers and leaders urging more resources for future efforts and for officials to consider an appeal of 2020's numbers.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township and chairman of the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee, held a field hearing Monday morning in Detroit to discuss with local politicians and experts the impacts of the 2020 census on communities in Michigan. 

Witnesses including Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan; Jeffrey Morenoff, professor of public policy and sociology, University of Michigan; N. Charles Anderson, president & CEO, Urban League of Detroit & Southeastern Michigan; Jane C. Garcia, vice chair, Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development (LA SED); Maha Freij, president & CEO, Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), and Kelley J. Kuhn, president & CEO, Michigan Nonprofit Association, are sworn in for a field hearing on the 2020 Census with U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township.

Census results are used to draw congressional districts, determine how many state and federal representatives a given community has and how to allocate funding to different states and localities.

Based on the 2020 census, Michigan's congressional and state legislative districts were redrawn. Results of the population count show that Michigan's population rose to over 10 million people but it was slower growth than other parts of the nation, resulting in the state losing a congressional representative.

Detroit count

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said the city was undercounted by 50,000 people in 2020 and he believes the federal government engaged in systemic racism through its conduct with the census. 

"In a city that's 84% Black and brown that undercount hits the city of Detroit harder than any other community in America," Duggan said. "(Ten) million (dollars) a year in state revenue sharing and much more in federal funds are being lost to our residents for critical services because of this undercount."

Duggan called for an appeal to the 2020 count and said the census bureau has been slow to release an appeal process.

"The people of Detroit just want to be counted like everybody else in America," he said. "All we want is objective standards and appeal. We can't go back in time. We want an appeal process that will allow us to use objective data."

Peters agreed that local governments should have the opportunity to challenge the census when appropriate. He said the Census Bureau created the post census group orders review program, which allows localities to submit new data for missing quarters like nursing homes, colleges and prisons.

"We've been fighting this for some time," Peters said. "I certainly believe that state, local, tribal governments all need to have meaningful opportunities across the country to challenge the census where it's appropriate, and where there's objective data to back up their assertions."

Jeffrey Morenoff, professor of public policy and sociology at the University of Michigan, said he was surprised and puzzled when he saw the 2020 census results suggesting Detroit lost over 4% of its population in one year and over 13% of its housing stock.

"The quality of the census population count is inextricably tied to the accuracy of its housing count, and the 2020 census produced a very puzzling count of Detroit's housing," Morenoff said.

An independent evaluation of the 2020 census count by Morenoff and other researchers at UM showed that the housing undercount was most pronounced in neighborhoods with the lowest self-response rates, suggesting that more field resources were needed. 

"This seismic decline in housing stock is likely inaccurate and translates into a significant population undercount," Morenoff said. "There's a real impact behind this undercount of people that should have gotten millions of dollars that should have gone to programs providing affordable housing, nutrition assistance, early childhood education and more won't reach the people who need them."

Public engagement 

All the panelists agreed that state and federal partnerships with community groups and local nonprofits are essential for an accurate census count.

Jane Garcia

Jane Garcia, vice chair of Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development, said there were not enough resources allocated to the census count in Michigan.

"We need to make sure that they have proper people that represent the community, that they go door to door that they have nonprofits that are partners," she said.

Kelley Kuhn, president and CEO of Michigan Nonprofit Association, said the historic undercount of people of color, immigrants and their families, young children, seniors, people who live in poverty, and people experiencing homelessness led to the creation of the Nonprofit Counts Campaign. The campaign serves to mobilize nonprofits to encourage census participation among these communities, in partnership with state and local governments.

"The campaign worked with government officials at all levels to maximize effectiveness, this cooperation primarily resulted in avoiding duplication of efforts and enhancing outreach," Kuhn said. "By investing our time now we can lay a strong foundation for those who will work to get our communities counted in 2030."

Charles Anderson, president and CEO of Urban League of Detroit & Southeastern Michigan, helped lead outreach efforts in Black communities during the 2020 census count. He said while in previous censuses it had been a privilege to partner with the federal government, the 2020 census felt more challenging in working toward getting an accurate count.

"We used all the available resources with some extra work focus on social media to make sure that we communicated with the clients, the 125,000 people that we would serve in a year, just to send out information and encourage them to participate in the census," Anderson said. 

Challenges and lessons from 2020

Duggan, who has previously worked as a census taker, said the door-to-door counting period was cut in 2020 from 10 weeks to seven weeks in Detroit and the local office was severely understaffed.

"This year, an internet response option was added," he said. "And when that happened, that exacerbated the differences between Black, brown, White, wealthy and poor people who do not have computers or internet access who are even less likely to have responded voluntarily which means we needed a more vigorous non-response follow-up than ever before."

In its one-year update for 2021, the Census Bureau reported Detroit had lost 7,000 people, Duggan said. In contrast to this finding, DTE Energy records show an increase of 8,000 housing units with gas and electricity, the mayor said.

"How do you have a situation where utility companies have a major increase in the number of occupied houses in the Census Bureau can't count them?" he said. "There's two possibilities, either we've been invaded by a group of ghosts or the Census Bureau data is wrong."

Peters said that in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic radically disrupting census counting plans in 2020, not enough funding and resources were dedicated to census preparation early on in the 2010s. 

"I would argue that part of the problem was the fact that the Republican Congress in place from 2012 to 2016 under-invested in the census," he said. "Early investments are critically important for getting an accurate count at the end."

Garcia said in 2012, 50% of the regional census offices were closed, including one in Michigan responsible for pre-census surveys. She argued more resources need to be allocated to the census starting now if the 2030 count is to be improved.

"Reopening some presence in Michigan we think is vital, especially to have some people that represent our communities that have been underserved," she said. 

Maha Freij

Maha Freij, CEO of the nation's largest Arab American nonprofit ACCESS, spoke about the uniquely difficult experience of not having a “Middle Eastern or North African” (MENA) response category on the 2020 census. Despite multiple efforts by organizations, including ACCESS, and others to get the MENA category on the 2020 census, the Trump administration blocked its inclusion, forcing MENA people to identify as "White" or use the write-in option. 

"The federal government’s exclusion of a category of self-identification for people from the MENA region, including Arabs and Chaldeans, has significant consequences," said Freij, "especially given that the Census produces powerful data that helps legislators, policymakers and community-based organizations recognize and address critical issues, like health disparities, academic and professional achievement gaps, and lack of access to capital." 

Despite the lack of a MENA category on the census, several advocacy efforts have been launched to help distinguish the community on federal forms. In February, Peters championed legislation that would specifically identify MENA communities as "underserved," establishing a precedent for the inclusion of this community in federal relief.

Anderson said he was particularly concerned with prison gerrymandering. Michigan has an incarceration rate of 599 per 100,000 people and the prison industrial complex disproportionately affects the Black community, who make up 14% of the state population but 50% of those who are imprisoned. Anderson said many Black people in prison, "could have been counted as Detroit citizens if in fact there was consideration given for that."

Peters said the testimony from today's hearing would put the local perspective on the record and help the Census Bureau address these challenges. 

"Clearly it is common sense, it is about making sure that the data actually is accurate and can be substantiated in an objective way," he said. "Not asking for any special treatment, but making sure that everybody is indeed counted."

hmackay@detroitnews.com