This Detroit freelancer is a former reporter and editor at the Detroit Free Press and Newsday.
By Vickie Elmer
Amid a timeline shortened this week by a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Detroit faces a significant undercount of its population because the Census Bureau understaffed its operations locally, a city official charges.
Detroit’s Census team is now scrambling to connect with residents to hit today's new deadline for the 2020 count, said Victoria Kovari, the mayor's executive director of a $3-million Detroit 2020 Census campaign. That deadline moves up two weeks by the high court’s decision Tuesday, which let the Trump administration cease counting households.
Thursday's deadline "really does risk a significant undercount in places like Detroit and other cities with high hard-to-count populations,” Kovari said in an interview Wednesday.
“The Detroit operation from the Census Bureau side was short-staffed and in a lot of disarray,” she added. “There’s a lot to be concerned about in the whole Census, beyond the timing issue.”
Ten years ago, the Census Bureau had a regional office in Detroit covering three states, plus four other outreach offices, according to Kovari. This year, it moved the regional office to Chicago to cover nine states and had only one Detroit office. She was told the Census Bureau hired 2,400 temporary staff in Detroit, down from approximately 3,600 in 2010.
The “disarray,” Kovari said, included not hiring temporary staff in a timely manner and not opening its office until June. The Census Bureau’s top manager in Detroit resigned in July and was not replaced until the end of August, added the mayoral aide.
The Census Bureau ordinarily would run its once-a-decade count from April through July. But because of the covid-19 pandemic, that timeline was extended into the fall.
A Census spokeswoman defended the effort here.
"We’re not going to get into a public debate with the City of Detroit. We’ve done seven different mailings," and followed up with media advertising and six visits to households, she said.
The Census needed fewer people this year because it switched from a paper system to one based on smartphones and apps. This meant each temporary worker could handle more household outreach every day. "They weren’t understaffed. We just didn’t need as many people as in 2010," the spokeswoman said.
A thornier issue
The once-a-decade count hired around 535,000 temporary workers in 2010, similar to its workforce for the 2000 Census. But in 2020, temporary staff for the Census hit a high of 288,204 the week of Aug. 9-15. By mid-September that had declined to 229,102, according to the Census’ weekly tally.
Charges that the Census Bureau was understaffed have risen from other organizations this year. The political atmosphere around the effort – the Trump administration wanted a question about citizenship on the form, a case it took to the Supreme Court last year – combined with fears of Covid-19 to make the count more difficult on multiple levels.
Kovari, whose sister is a Census enumerator in suburban Oakland County, said the Census did bring in staff from around the state in late September to set up in front of restaurants and food distribution sites. “They definitely had people from the suburbs come to Detroit, particularly for apartment buildings, which are the hardest to count,” she said.
Still, she noted the staffing shortages in Detroit, and said it took her a year to connect with and have a conversation with local or regional Census officials.
One temporary Census worker in Oakland County confirmed that her co-workers were asked to count in Detroit in the early fall. “It looked like there were plenty of people who still wanted to work,” and some also were invited to count Native Americans in Arizona or Montana, said Joan Ritter of Birmingham. She said the remaining cases in Oakland County were scarce and “scattered about” in several cities, so she turned in her Census counting materials a week or so ago.
Detroit had planned around 20 events for later in October, many of them around the city’s Halloween in the D celebrations. The city was going to give $25 gift cards to residents at food donation locations at churches to increase the count.
“We were kind of shocked” at the Supreme Court overturning lower court, said Kovari, a lifelong Detroiter who lives in the Green Acres neighborhood. Since Januyary 2014, she has been an executive assistant to the mayor and general manager at the Department of Neighborhoods.
She hopes to send volunteers to a rapper’s event Wednesday and to some food pickups in the city Wednesday and Thursday.
Detroit falls behind
In Detroit, 50.8 percent of housing units have been counted through residents responses online or by mail or phone, the city reported, compared to 71 percent for the state of Michigan. The total does not include homes and individuals or families counted by temporary Census workers.
Detroit participation is far behind other major cities, including Chicago, Washington D.C. and New Orleans, despite Detroit’s investment in initiatives and incentives to drive Census response. The data comes from the city of Detroit dashboard as of Oct. 13 and includes a breakdown by Census tract and city council district. It compares Detroit to other major cities.
The likely undercount is important to Detroit because of the city’s high poverty rate, its reliance on federal funding for housing, road, school lunches and other improvements and because Detroit has come to serve as a symbol of both comeback and urban problems.
Detroit estimated that it lost hundreds of millions of dollars after the 2010 Census, when 64 percent of households were counted, down from 70 percent a decade earlier.
“We have a great deal of concern for what this means” in Detroit and in its elected representation in Lansing and Washington, D.C., said N. Charles Anderson, president of the Urban League of Detroit, which works for civil rights and civic engagement.
"The Census count has a 10-year lifespan,” he said. For the Trump administration “the compromised Census count will live on in infamy.”