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So much is at stake as Detroit’s census approaches 

click to enlarge A billboard campaign encourages Detroiters to fill out the 2020 Census. - STEVE NEAVLING
  • Steve Neavling
  • A billboard campaign encourages Detroiters to fill out the 2020 Census.

The U.S. Census is a decennial nightmare for Detroit.

With thousands of vacant houses, numerous multi-family apartments, high poverty, sparse internet access, and a large population of immigrants and people of color, Detroit is the toughest city in the U.S. to count, according to an Associated Press analysis. About 86% of the city's population resides in hard-to-count neighborhoods.

In 2010, officials believe as many as 30,000 residents weren't counted. For each resident missed in the decennial census tally, the city misses out on roughly $5,000 a year for resources ranging from Medicaid and food stamps to foster care and education assistance, Victoria Kovari, executive director of Detroit's 2020 Census Campaign, tells Metro Times. In all, Detroit, the most impoverished big city in America, may have missed out on as much as $150 million a year — or $1.5 billion in a decade.

An accurate count is also important because it determines whether states gain or lose congressional seats, and Michigan lost a seat in each of the last two census counts. Experts believe it might lose another seat this year.

Determined to avoid another significant undercount, the city is launching one of the most comprehensive census campaigns ever undertaken in the country. About 300 organizations have teamed up to help the city.

"We feel like we have a plan and operation that is equal to the challenge," Kovari says. "Everybody from all over the city wants to make this work. It's a very unifying moment for the city."

For the first time, residents can fill out the census online or over the phone. That poses an opportunity — and a challenge — for the city. The Census Bureau estimates that nearly a third of Detroit's households — double the national average — don't have regular access to the internet.

Here's how the city plans to get more residents counted:

• Recruited 120 census captains in the hard-to-count neighborhoods to distribute information and posters to businesses, block clubs, and churches

• Online census kiosks at 50 locations next to DivDat machines, where residents make about 80,000 transactions a month

• Internet-ready computers with census prompts at roughly 100 locations, including libraries, recreation centers, and nonprofits

• Events with artists

• 100 billboards featuring the faces of popular neighborhood residents, such as rapper Icewear Vezzo

• Dozens of online videos explaining how the census works and why it's important, in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Bengali

• Schools prepared to teach students and parents about the census

• Radio ads playing in March and April

• Robust social media messages targeting hard-to-count census tracts

• Event tickets at the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre promoting the census

• Teams with internet-ready tablets will help residents fill out the survey at churches and other locations

• Door-to-door knocking beginning in March

In 2010, only 64% of Detroiters filled out the census, compared to 70% in 2000. Statewide, 78% of the population completed the survey, with Livonia hitting 90%. The nationwide average was 74%.

This year, the state hopes to increase the participation rate to 82%.

When residents don't fill out the survey, census workers knock on doors and talk to landlords, the mail carrier, and even neighbors in hopes of counting as many missed people as possible.

In the 2010 census, Detroit's counted population plummeted 25% in 10 years, falling to 713,777, the largest decline on record for a major city. In 2017, the city missed out on federal funding to combat lead poisoning because the population dipped below the 750,000 minimum population required for the grant. The city is hoping the population exceeds 750,000 this time around.

Other funding tied to the census count pays for fixing roads, improving schools, and providing housing for lower-income residents.

"There are billions of dollars at stake," Kovari tells Metro Times. "We're determined to get as much of a robust count as possible."

On the state level, the Michigan Nonprofit Association is taking the lead in ensuring a robust count. Last week, state lawmakers, nonprofit groups, the Secretary of State Office, and Lt. Gov Garlin Gilchrist II kicked off what they're calling the largest effort in state history to promote the census.

"The census numbers affect everyone in Michigan, including seniors, students, kids, parents, businesses and communities, so we all need to do all we can to ensure we encourage everybody we know to complete the census," Michigan Assistant Secretary of State Heaster Wheeler said in a news release.

Statewide, an estimated 1.8 million residents are considered hard-to-count, which is based on census tracts with high poverty rates, low access to the internet, and minority and immigrant populations.

State lawmakers approved $16 million to fund the campaign, which includes radio, television and newspaper ads, direct mail, billboards, town halls, and messages on social media and via email and cell phone.

State Rep. Isaac Robinson, D-Detroit, said that accurately counting predominantly Black neighborhoods is a moral imperative.

"There was a time in our nation's history where Black undercount was deliberate and constitutionally designed," Robinson tells Metro Times. "Despite progress, our civil rights laws, and amendments to our U.S. Constitution, decade after decade Black communities across America continue to be undercounted."

Robinson says that an undercount would be "a direct attack on our city's democratic aspirations and hurts our schools."

"An undercount in 2020 would be a terrible blow to those working for social and economic justice in Detroit, as lawmakers and government agencies rely on census data for drafting legislative boundaries."

Census forms will begin reaching mailboxes on March 12. Since nonprofits handle populations most in need, they're taking charge to ensure Michigan doesn't miss out on much-needed money.

"The Michigan Nonprofit Association and philanthropy got out very early to let people know what's at stake and for people to mobilize to get people counted," Donna Murray-Brown, president and CEO of Michigan Nonprofit Association, tells Metro Times. "If Michigan doesn't draw the funding we deserve, that's millions and millions of dollars we could lose.

She adds, "Communities are at risk of losing essential revenue for programs and services relied on by all Michigan residents. Nonprofits are keenly aware of the negative impact an undercount will have on their communities, and that they will need to find ways to make up the shortfall."

A key message to residents is that the census is impactful and easy to fill out.

"The 2020 census form includes nine questions and takes less than 10 minutees to complete — but those 10 minutes can benefit Michigan for the next 10 years," Michigan Statewide Census Director Kerry Ebersole Singh said in a news release.

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