Every 10 years, the United States attempts a massive feat: trying to count every person who lives here. Not only is the census a huge undertaking, it has serious implications for communities across the country. It determines how many seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives, and helps determine the districts for state and local races as well. It also plays a role in the allocation of federal funding.
Michigan’s response rate is the third highest in the nation. But the response rate in many communities of color, including the state’s largest city, Detroit, is lower than the national average so far. Kurt Metzger is the founder and director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit and is also the mayor of the city of Pleasant Ridge. He’s been working on the census since the 1970s. He says it’s usually the case that the response rate is lower in areas with larger communities of color. He attributes that, in part, to a distrust in government among those populations.
“They’re not really seeing the federal government as caring one iota about their situation,” Metzger said. “They don’t see the schools really being improved through an infusion of money, they don’t see money coming into their neighborhoods. So it’s that real direct connection between the census and their future, and the city's future is kind of a difficult concept, and so it really requires people to get out there, people to hear from people they trust.”
There was a plan for Detroit to reach out to these communities, but it crumbled when the pandemic hit, Metzger said. Trusted organizations like churches and other community centers shut down, and communication was limited.
The pandemic has also severely delayed the census. Enumerators, the people who go door to door to addresses that have not responded, are set to start their work at the end of July and go through October. But they’ll be asking people questions about where they were in April, which may have changed since then. Their job could become even harder as eviction moratoriums end and people lose their incomes and housing during the economic downturn.
“The whole delay in the process is going to make it even more confusing. It’s going to make it more difficult to count. It’s going to make it more difficult to get to that final rate,” Metzger said. “It’s going to, I believe, certainly add to potential undercounts going forward.”
Each person counted is worth, according to some estimates Metzer says, around $1,800 a year for their community. The census also determines voting districts, which could be skewed by a misrepresentation in data. And the data is final. The numbers, which will come out mid-2021, can’t be fixed by statistical projections, according to a Supreme Court ruling in 2000.
“I think it’s going to be a lost census in many ways, but we are going to have to live with it regardless,” Metzger said. “The numbers will be written in stone.”
Another area of the state where local leaders are worried about an undercount is West Michigan. Daniela Rojas-Cortés is the fund development and communications manager at the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan. According to the 2010 Census, Latino communities in West Michigan reportedly make up about 16 percent of the population, but Rojas-Cortés says that number is likely an undercount.
"I would say that it is largely undercounted, and it probably was largely undercounted back in 2010. We know that those groups are growing faster and faster," she said. "It’s probably closer to 20 to 25 [percent]."
She says that several factors—beyond the pandemic—could prevent members of West Michigan's Latino population from participating in this year's census, including access to technology, language barriers, poverty, education, and immigration status.
"Another thing that really backs people away from participation is this aggressive immigration reform that we currently have," Rojas-Cortés said. "So that participation kind of lowers, because it’s like, 'Well, you say that you care about counting Latinos, you care about the Latinx community being represented, but look at what’s also happening with immigration reform."
Rojas-Cortés says the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan has been working to share information about the benefits of completing the census with members of the Latino communities they serve, particularly those who are undocumented immigrants.
"We talk about the general things that will impact their children in terms of education, access to food, and then also the longevity of that money that gets distributed," she said. "Perhaps you’re not in a position to directly benefit from it now, but you could be in six, eight years, and that funding is necessary for all of that."
This post was written by Stateside production assistants Olive Scott and Nell Ovitt.