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Challenging the Census to Count the Uncounted

Now that Census 2010 results are coming out, some places around the country are scratching their heads. They are puzzled by the lower-than-expected population counts and considering mounting challenges to get the official number changed. The state of California thinks the census missed 1.5 million residents. New York City measures its population at 8.4 million rather than the 8.175 million that the Census Bureau reports. 

Cities that have been losing population for years--such as Detroit, Cleveland, Akron, and Cincinnati --are considering challenges. And smaller places like Panorama Village, Tex. (50 miles north of Houston) and Garden City, Kan. are joining in. Manny Diaz, the former mayor of Miami, argues that not only should Miami challenge its count, but so should “cities like it” (whatever that means … is any city like Miami?).

An accurate census is never easy, but it’s harder in some places than others. 

Leading up to Census 2010, I (and others) looked at places that received a high “hard-to-count” score from the U.S. Census Bureau. The places that typically have lower census participation rates are correlated with factors like rental and multi-family housing, overcrowding, unmarried individuals, low education and income levels, public assistance, high unemployment, recent movers, lack of phone service, linguistic isolation, and vacant housing units. The Census Bureau steered extra marketing resources toward these places in an effort to get out the count, and state and local leaders joined in the efforts to make sure their jurisdictions would get credit for every person living there. After all, more people = more federal dollars

A lot is at stake, especially for places as desperate for population (and the funding it brings) as Detroit. Once the fourth-largest city in the country, Detroit has bled population since 1950 (when it had 1.85 million people) and now ranks 18th. Much has been said about Detroit’s demise and what to do about it. Launching a census challenge to fight for every dollar--an estimated $2,200 for every person missed according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors--seems to be a no-brainer.

But it’s not easy to successfully challenge the Census Bureau. Challengers must submit maps and address lists indicating the exact location of people they believe were not counted. After the last census, 1,180 places--less than 2 percent of all U.S. jurisdictions-- successfully challenged their count, and the corrections resulted in a net gain of only 2,700 people--a mere 1/1000th of one percent of the nation’s total population in 2000. 

Still, for cities like Detroit, it’s worth the effort. Their participation rate for Census 2010 was a mere 64 percent, down from 70 percent in 2000. Metropolitan Detroit ranked 78th among the 100 largest metro areas for its participation in the census. Ironically, Michigan ranked fourth among states for its participation rate (78 percent, compared to 74 percent for the entire nation), but clearly Detroit has more residents living in hard-to-count census tracts than the rest of the state.  

Once the numerical “dust” settles, Detroit can return to its plans to shrink the city and attract more people. If they listen to New York City Mayor Bloomberg--who is mounting his own census challenge--they might lobby harder for federal immigration reform that includes incentives for foreigners to settle in Detroit.