Detroit census challenge

May 2, 2011

Imagine trying to prove that thousands of people exist, when you have no idea who they are.

That’s the dilemma facing officials who think their communities were undercounted in the 2010 Census.  But for Midwest cities preparing to challenge those numbers: How do you find people the Census Bureau missed?  We went looking for answers in Detroit.

When Detroit’s numbers came out in March, Mayor Dave Bing quickly summoned the press.  The tone was crisis — as if a natural disaster had struck.  And in a way, it had.  Detroit had lost a quarter of its people over the last ten years.

As cameras whirred, the mayor explained that Detroit’s population now stood at 713,777. 

"Personally I don’t believe the number is accurate,” he said.  “And I don’t believe it will stand up as we go through with our challenge."

Cleveland, Akron and Cincinnati are also considering challenges. 

That’s because people equal money – as in funding from the federal government.  And as long as Detroit remained a big city with more than 750,000 people, state law allowed it to do things like charge higher taxes.  That brought in millions more every year.

“We are in a fiscal crisis and we have to fight for every dollar.  We can’t afford to let these results stand,” said Bing.

So now Detroit wants to find almost 40,000 more people and prove that the Census missed them.  That’s like finding the entire population of Muskegon or Moline inside Detroit.

But former Census workers like Mark Dancey already know they missed people.  Detroit is hard to count. 

“I had the situation where I knock on the door and I see ‘em running out the back door,” he said.  Well, “Not running, just sneaking.”

Dancey worked his own neighborhood of Southwest Detroit for the Census.  He said people mostly cooperated.  But take this one building, The Barbara.  Forty-six units.  Dancey waited outside at least a dozen times, until someone let him in.  Then he’d knock and he’d knock.

"Either people would say, ‘No, I won’t talk to you,’” he said.  “Or, they’d yell through the door, ‘Come back later.’  Some people would just open the door and just say, ‘No, I’m not going to talk to you.’  Slam the door.”

Silas White has lived in The Barbara for two years.  He said he never got a Census form in the mail, never saw a Census worker.

The building’s front door swings open freely.  That’s because the door handle and the lock have been busted off.  White unlocked an inner door to show me inside.

The Barbara, he said, is, “Kindof rough.  I mean, it’s a die -hard building, you know, but it’s not too much trouble.  But we didn’t get counted.”

There are more than 300 million people in the United States.  Census Director Robert Groves freely acknowledges that it’s hard to count them all.  When questionnaires didn’t come back in the mail, he sent enumerators to visit 47 million households as many as six times.

“But what we can’t do if you think about it is reconstruct the world as it was on April 1, 2010,” he said.

So, Detroit can’t just produce a list of names like Silas White and say, “Trust us, they were here.”  To challenge, cities and towns have to show processing errors.  Like, was a boundary inaccurate?  Did group quarters like prisons and nursing homes get put on the wrong block?  Groves said that in the 2000 Census, a lot of Michiganders did get counted in the wrong place. 

But, he said, “The net of a whole lot of changes was that the state added 36 people to its population.”

Illinois gained 354 people. Ohio added five.

The results of the Decennial Census can be difficult to change.  It’s much easier for local jurisdictions to challenge the population estimates that come out between official counts.  The criterion is different, which is how Detroit added tens of thousands of people to its 2006 population estimate.  Only the official count is used for things like the reapportionment of the House of Representatives.

But the challenge isn’t stopping Detroit now.  Over at the planning department, they’re just getting started.  So John Baran’s been staring at a map showing population change across the city. 

He’s spotted an inconsistency right downtown.

“The census track 5172 which is very purple on that map there, lost 1,400 people, but only lost 60 housing units,” he said.  “The math doesn’t work out.  There weren’t 1,400 people in 60 housing units.”

He suspects the county jail was missed, or maybe a dormitory.  Big stuff.  But mostly, the city will have to go block by block and show that the Census made mistakes, like deleting housing units from its files that were actually still there.  So can you produce 40,000 people that way?

“It’d be quite challenging to produce 40,000 people through a housing challenge,” Baran said. 

But isn’t that the goal?

“The goal is to get an accurate count,” he said.  “And make sure everyone in the city was counted.”

Still, somewhere close to 237,000 people left Detroit over the last ten years.  Why did they leave?  And what will it take to keep people here?  These questions will persist long after the Census’s Count Question Resolution Program begins accepting challenges on June 1st.

Changing Gears is a public media collaboration between Michigan Radio, WBEZ and Ideastream in Cleveland. Support for Changing Gears comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.