Duggan: U.S. Census effort in Detroit was ‘malpractice’

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Mayor Mike Duggan. - CITY OF DETROIT
  • City of Detroit
  • Mayor Mike Duggan.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan argued Thursday that the 2020 U.S. Census has undercounted Detroit’s population by 8% in some city neighborhoods.

“This was malpractice by the Census Bureau,” said Duggan who worked as population counter in 1980 for the agency when he was a student at the University of Michigan. “This was not an honest mistake.”

Duggan isn’t alone in his criticism of the messy decennial census conducted during the former Trump administration, with officials shortening deadlines and attempting to include a citizenship question that could dissuade undocumented people from participating.

As a result of the census, Michigan lost one of its congressional seats, going from 14 to 13.

Duggan was joined by officials from the University of Michigan and Wayne State University at a Detroit press conference.

Census data provides population statistics that help to identify federal funding for programs such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, Head Start, Pell grants as well as highway planning and construction.

“The independent analysis conducted by the University of Michigan and Wayne State is incredibly impressive and deeply troubling,” Duggan added. “This report makes a compelling case that the 2020 Census was conducted so poorly in Detroit that it may have missed tens of thousands of residents, costing the city hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid for programs Detroiters badly need. We will be pursuing a remedy for this clear undercount and are in the process of determining our approach.”

Duggan’s argument is not without precedent. Both in 1980 and 1990, former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young formally challenged U.S. Census figures. Once the nation’s fifth largest city with 1.8 million residents in 1950, the Motor City’s population has continually declined. 

Each year, the Census Bureau releases an official estimate of the residential population of every municipality in the nation. In 2020, the census counted a population of 639,000 in Detroit. When compared to the census’ 2019 estimate of 670,000 residents in Detroit, this marked an anomalous single-year decline of 31,000 residents, or about 5% of the 2019 estimate.

The U of M report, “Analysis of the Census 2020 Count in Detroit,” pointed out that a population decline of that size over the course of one year would be out of line with Detroit’s recent population trends, as well as trends in other cities of similar sizes, with similar economic histories and with similar demographics.

“It is implausible to think the city’s population declined by 31,000 residents in one year, so we are conducting research to examine how this could have happened,” said Jeffrey Morenoff, U of M professor of sociology and public policy. “We noticed that the 2020 census counted far fewer housing units compared to the 2019 estimate, so we conducted an audit of housing in 10 census block groups and found that the census undercounted the number of occupied housing units in these areas by about 8%.”

Ramona Rodriguez-Washington, program director at the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University, who led the in-person canvas of select neighborhoods for the study, also attended the press conference.

“The decennial census is an important part of guaranteeing the representation at the heart of our nation’s democracy,” said Rodriguez-Washington. “My staff from the Wayne State University Center for Urban Studies and I were proud to be a part of the Census Challenge Team in helping to achieve the most accurate census count possible for Detroit residents.”

Originally published December 17, 2021 on Michigan Advance. It is shared here with permission.

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