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Duggan slams Detroit census count as new research suggests thousands of Detroiters were missed

A graph showing the disparity between the official census count, a Wayne State University canvass, and U.S. Postal Service data in five Detroit neighborhoods.
University of Michigan Poverty Solutions
A graph showing the disparity between the official census count, a Wayne State University canvass, and U.S. Postal Service data in five Detroit neighborhoods.

The 2020 census committed “malpractice” on the city of Detroit by seriously undercounting its population, Mayor Mike Duggan said Thursday.

Duggan, who’s long contended the census was undercounting Detroiters and has staked his success on reversing the city's population loss, came armed with new research suggesting the census missed tens of thousands of people in its 2020 count.

The census officially put Detroit’s population at around 639,000 people, but using U.S. Postal Service data and on-the-ground canvassing, teams from the University of Michigan and Wayne State University found that census takers consistently missed at least 8% of households in five of Detroit’s more stable, populated neighborhoods. The researchers also compared census to Postal Service data in five more neighborhoods.

“We estimate that this 2020 census undercounted the population and the number of housing units in those areas by 8.1%,” said University of Michigan professor and lead researcher Jeffrey Morenoff. “And if you extrapolate that to the rest of the city, and if the rest of the city was undercounted at a similar rate, you would have a magnitude in the tens of thousands of people who are not counted.”

City-wide, Morenoff said, the researchers “hypothesize that the undercount might be even greater than they were in the first five neighborhoods, primarily because you have higher rates of vacancy and more turnover and lower response rates to the census.”

Detroit had the lowest response rate of any large city nationwide, in a census year that was marred by both controversy over the process itself and the COVID-19 pandemic. But Duggan said the census bureau had a responsibility to get an accurate count — something he accused them of not even trying to do.

“This was not an honest mistake,” Duggan fumed at an afternoon . “The Census Bureau knew Detroit had the highest non-response rate in America, [but] they sent the follow up efforts to the outstate and suburban areas first and got to Detroit last.”

Duggan said the apparent undercounting will leave Detroit short tens of millions of dollars in federal aid and affect the city’s political representation. “There is not a precedent in the country where there was an undercount done in such an intentional way,” he said. “So we've got, I think, an unprecedented situation.”

Duggan said the city is already planning to appeal the official count to the U.S. Commerce Department, which oversees the census. If that’s unsuccessful, Duggan said the city will take the census bureau to federal court.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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