Michigan could lose $450M a year in census undercount

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Federal U.S. Census Bureau canvassers are working overtime amid the pandemic to reach rural areas of northern Michigan and pockets of Wayne County that, they say, remain undercounted.

Nearly 99% of Michigan households have been counted as of this week. But that still leaves out an estimated 55,000 households that haven't been accounted for, state officials said Thursday.

That could cost Michigan more than $450 million in federal funds a year, said Kerry Ebersole Singh, executive director of Michigan 2020 Census.

Danielle Brown, a recruiting assistant, works the Census 2020 registration table in front of Straight Gate International Church in Detroit.

"It seems small, but these are the hardest to count," she said of the remaining households. 

About half of those households are in Wayne County, including an estimated 9,000 in Detroit. Another 5,500 are in northern Lower Michigan and 2,200 households in the Upper Peninsula, Ebersole Singh said.  

"Census workers will be out through Sunday, and we really encourage everyone to cooperate with them because it is their job," said Charmine Yates, a Census Bureau spokeswoman for Michigan. "It happens once every 10 years, and millions of dollars are at stake in really critical life-saving programs."

The clock is running out on the once-a-decade headcount, but the exact end date is not clear. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross tweeted Monday the 2020 census will end Oct. 5 despite a federal judge’s ruling last week that allowed the headcount to continue through the end of October.

The 2020 census will determine congressional representation, and responses will shape decisions about how billions of dollars in federal funds flow into communities each year for the next 10 years. Health care, emergency response, schools and education programs, roads and bridges are all impacted by the census.

Michigan, which ranks 21st nationally for the enumerated count as of Thursday, appears on track to lose a congressional seat after the 2020 Census because its growth is outpaced by other states, according to experts.

Danielle Brown, left, and Jocqueline Keels, both recruiting assistants, worked the Census 2020 registration table in front of Straight Gate International Church in Detroit.

The goal is to count all state residents where they were living as of April 1, but the process is full of challenges: dealing with incomplete forms, tracking last-minute moves by residents and accounting for unoccupied addresses and vacant lots from a decade-old master list. 

Add in a deadly pandemic that limits access to people and it makes the process even more difficult, officials said. 

"People are not necessarily where they would typically be on April 1," Yates said. "The pandemic has led many not to return to their college campuses, apartments, vacation homes and many have moved in with loved ones. It's a challenge to continue to revisit occupied and unoccupied homes of our master address list, especially in northern Michigan."

The primary method the census tallies is through self responses from residents. In Michigan, 71.1% of the count has been done this way as of Thursday, which is higher than the 67.7% in 2010. It's also higher than the national average of 66.6%.

But Michigan's remote areas in the Upper Peninsula, including Keweenaw County and Mackinac, had among the census' lowest self-response rates, with less than 40% responding online, phone or by mail.

Some of the Lower Peninsula's northern counties, including Alcona, Oscoda and Montmorency, have response rates under 40%, and the west side's Lake County is under 30%. In Alcona, which had a 38.2% self-response, census workers have been checking in daily, said clerk Lauren Desonia.

Detroit's self-response rate was at 50.6%. In comparison to other Midwestern cities: Chicago, 60.2%; Indianapolis, 65.3%; Milwaukee, 61%; Minneapolis, 73.6%; St. Louis, 53.5%. 

Other highly populated cities in southeast Michigan, including Clay Township, Hamtramck, Highland Park and River Rouge, had under 60% self-response rates.

Census takers have been in the field following up with non-responders since early August in Michigan. They are deployed to areas with less than a 50% response rate and make up to six attempts at each housing unit to count possible residents, officials said. This includes leaving notes and information at the door and phone calls. After exhausting their efforts, they will seek out proxy sources — a neighbor, a rental agent, a building manager or someone familiar with the housing unit — to obtain as much basic information as they can.

It's traditionally the poorest and majority-minority communities in the state that are undercounted, which is why there's a heavy focus on Detroit, Yates said.

This year was the "perfect storm," with the pandemic creating a greater challenge for canvassers who no longer had access to large groups and had to cancel more than 100 planned events in Detroit.

In Detroit, low-response groups are renters, those living in apartment buildings and residents in Midtown and downtown, said Victoria Kovari, executive director of Detroit's census.

"It's partly because Wayne State is a commuter campus, and the city also holds large immigrant communities. Southwest is particularly difficult. People who don’t have internet connection or moved in with a relative, maybe because of the economic situation, is very typical and scattered across the city," Kovari said.

In Keweenaw County, one of Michigan's lowest self-response rates, was at 29.9%. The population is less than 2,000 people in an area of 100 miles of paved road. Still, there have been census workers scoping the county all week to find anyone they can, officials said.

The county is heavily visited by about 80,000 people during July and August, with a majority of vacation homes for residents that love to hunt. For every occupied house in the county, there are five seasonal vacation homes.

During the pandemic, census leaders targeted areas people are still visiting: gas stations, grocery stores, shopping areas, schools and hospitals. Still, there are many in rural areas that are difficult to reach.

Leaders in Wayne County, the largest county in the state, say it's difficult to target minority and immigrant communities that face a language barrier or might have undocumented citizens, but are hopeful a Californian court's ruling will allocate more time to reach them. The county has a 66.3% self-response rate.

"We have a very robust immigrant community in southeast Michigan, and most come from where the government is not trustworthy, and we battle with those points of view," said Bill Nowling, Wayne County's spokesman.

Detroit Census 2020 information is available for residents at the registration table in front of Straight Gate International Church.

'Need all the time we can get'

In the last two weeks, Detroit has held 25 canvassing events, social media outreach and placed a large billboard in the southwest with Tigers' Miguel Cabrera urging residents in Spanish to fill out the census, regardless of their immigration status.

"It's been a huge challenge," Yates said. "We need all the time we can get to try to make up for that. We've done it by trying to just do the smaller events and going to where people are, and they're not in as many places they would be pre-COVID but we're doing our best."

In the last month, federal workers in Wayne County and Detroit targeted undercounted areas, they say, in Districts 5 and 6. Workers also spent nights sweeping through the city to count the homeless and have done routine checks of nursing homes and shelters.

This week, they're targeting churches, food distribution sites and grocery stores incentivizing people by giving out $10-$25 grocery vouchers if they fill out the census on site.

"Since mid-July, we've done this in about 40 grocery stores, we've stood outside liquor stores and went up to people while they waited in their cars for mass and signed up well over 500 people at those sites," Yates said. "It doesn't sound like much, but you have to catch about 2,000 people to even sign up 200."

Still, community leaders such as Joyce Moore in District 5's Virginia Park say they are getting duplicate notifications after filling out the census.

"I don’t think it’s going well because I'm getting duplicate mailings, some for the same name for people who have moved over 30 years ago," said Moore, who represents the Virginia Park Community Coalition. "It keeps coming like voter registration, and I just keep tearing them up because I did my census sometime last month."

Census officials say many residents are submitting incomplete forms, missing their assigned census ID numbers, leading to multiple visits from enumerators.

Michigan is the only state that lost population in the last census. And last year was the first time in a decade that southeast Michigan saw a population decline, according to demographers with the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.

"This is too important for Michigan," said Xuan Liu, director of research and data analysis for SEMCOG.

Tommey Walker, founder of lifestyle brand Detroit vs. Everybody, said he didn't want students to make the same mistakes he did.

Tommey Walker, the founder of lifestyle brand Detroit vs. Everybody, stood before hundreds of students earlier this year to remind them of a truth he discovered as he got older.

"Your voice isn't just singular, it joins and creates part of a collective," said Walker, talking on participating in the 2020 Census and registering to vote.

As part of awareness programming with Wayne United, the designer launched the slogan "Everybody Counts" on his signature black T-shirts.

"Your vote has an impact. You have an impact. Everybody counts," he said.

► More: After 12 years, Michigan incomes finally climb back from Great Recession

How can people respond on their own?

Online at 2020census.gov; by phone at 844-330-2020 (English) or 844-468-2020 (Spanish) or by mail. 


Twitter: @SarahRahal_

Staff Writer Christine MacDonald contributed.