Detroit challenges 2020 census, claiming population was undercounted by 8%

Detroit — a majority Black metropolitan city of more than half a million residents — became the largest U.S. city to challenge the national headcount of the 2020 census, with local officials claiming that nearly a tenth of its population was left out of the final totals, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In its filing to the bureau last week, Detroit claimed that at least 8% of occupied homes in 10 of Detroit's neighborhoods were undercounted and that the data, which is collected every decade, is inaccurate. The discrepancy was revealed in December after an independent analysis conducted by the University of Michigan and Wayne State.

“The Census Bureau now has an obligation to set the record straight,” Mayor Michael Duggan said in a letter to the bureau, adding that a lack of resources and an insufficient number of counters throughout the city resulted in an inaccurate figure that is likely to have a chilling effect on the Michigan city for the next decade.

In the letter, provided by Duggan’s office to Yahoo News, the mayor provides evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” that he claims shows the bureau undercounted the number of occupied housing units, the overall number of housing units and the population of Michigan’s largest city.

A U.S. Census sign.
A sign used at a promotional event for the U.S. Census in Times Square in New York City in 2020. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Results of the 2020 census determined that Detroit had a population of 639,111 residents, while estimates from 2019 placed the city’s population at just over 670,000 residents.

Reynolds Farley, a census expert and retired professor of public policy and sociology at the University of Michigan, told Yahoo News that the significant discrepancy in numbers showed a "dereliction of duty" on the part of the bureau.

“This census was deficient in Detroit,” Farley said. “They didn’t plan well in Detroit."

Farley believes that the bureau relied too heavily on online collection methods, in a city where about a quarter of the population did not have access to high-speed internet as recently as 2016. He also claims that not enough employees were in the field to collect data. As a former Michigan counter in the 2000 and 2010 census cycles, Farley believes the bureau was simply not up to the challenge.

Detroit is one of more than 20 cities and counties that have officially challenged the 2020 census thus far. Challenges are rarely successful, however.

An aerial view of Detroit's business district.
The General Motors world headquarters is the tallest at the Renaissance Center in the skyline of Detroit's downtown, as pictured in 2008. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The results of the census results have a far-reaching impact throughout the federal government and American society. The data, collected once a decade, is used to determine how much political representation communities receive, how electoral districts are drawn and how more than $1.5 trillion in federal funding is allocated across the country for basic services like education, food and health care.

In Detroit, the city gets $600 per person for every resident from the state of Michigan, according to Farley. If the 30,000 resident undercount is correct, the city would be underfunded in excess of at least $18 million.

Policy experts say that potential discrepancies in the data as substantial as this one create a cycle of disproportionate allocation of resources.

“[The census] is the foundation of our democracy,” Kelly Percival, senior counsel and census expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, told Yahoo News last month. “And so when we know inequalities are happening like this, we're baking inequity into our democracy from the start if we don’t fix this problem.”

The census is prone to undercounting communities of color for a range of reasons, including the increased difficulty of reaching some populations and public mistrust of government surveys and agents. But according to Percival, the 2020 census was only the second since World War II to be measurably less accurate than the one before it.

Detroit election workers count absentee ballots, seen through a window carrying a poster saying Detroit Department of Elections, Central Counting Board.
Detroit election workers count absentee ballots for the 2020 general election at TCF Center on Nov. 4, 2020. (Photo by Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)

Disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic added an additional obstacle to the latest census, which was conducted during the first year of the virus’s spread, when many people moved locations unexpectedly and were less likely to open their doors to government canvassers.

Detroit was the car manufacturing capital of the world early in the 20th century, becoming the fourth most populated city in the U.S. in the 1920s. In 2013, it became the largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy. Since then, the city has had the highest rate of concentrated poverty of the 25 largest metropolitan areas in the United States, with an inner-city area whose population is 78% Black.

The city has been working to turn itself around, and has many new restaurants and bars, a growing art scene and a revitalized downtown area. But a study from Michigan State University revealed that much of the progress has been limited to a 7-square-mile radius, in a city of 139 square miles.

The census bureau maintains that data collection was not drastically different this cycle from collections in the past.

“The challenges are pretty consistent from decade to decade in getting people to respond to a survey and participate,” Jennifer Reichert, chief of the Decennial Census Management Division of the Census Bureau, told Yahoo News.

A mural painted on the side of a bar building shows a dozen rappers surrounding Detroit's Eminem.
A mural titled "Eminem" by Jose Felix Perez and Michael Vasquez in the Eastern Market in Detroit in July 2019. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

Despite the known undercount issues, the bureau says the tallies will not be adjusted.

While acknowledging the challenges of the most recent census, Farley said he believes the bureau should have predicted the issues in advance and made greater efforts to get an accurate count of the entire population, or as he put it, "not just people who fill out the form." "There wasn’t appropriate outreach, it appears, and you have to put extra resources where it’s going to put people to count them,” he added.


Cover thumbnail photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images