Detroit challenges the U.S. Census Bureau’s population estimates in a federal lawsuit

By: - September 26, 2022 3:31 am

Spirit of Detroit | Susan J. Demas

The city of Detroit is suing the U.S. Census Bureau, claiming it undercounted residents in the predominantly Black city.

The city claims in the suit filed in U.S. District Court that the city’s population grew in 2021. If true, it would mark the first time the city’s population has increased in seven decades.

The lawsuit takes aim at the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 population estimate that suggested the city lost 7,150 residents last year. 

Since the bureau no longer allows challenges to its population counts, the city’s only recourse was to file a federal lawsuit, Mayor Mike Duggan said.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan speaks at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Sept. 14, 2022. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

“The Census Bureau used a formula to estimate Detroit’s population that showed the city losing more than 7,000 residents from just one year prior,” Duggan said in a statement Tuesday. “Any formula claiming the city is still losing population defies facts and common sense, given the thousands of newly constructed and renovated housing units in the city, as well as increases in residential utility connections. Activity like this does not happen when more people are leaving the city than moving in.”

The suit claims the Census Bureau violated its own policies by unilaterally preventing challenges. The city also says the bureau refused to review any evidence of an undercount or demonstrate how it arrived at its estimate.

In the lawsuit, the city is urging the court to force the bureau to share its formula for arriving at the count.

Citing evidence from U.S. Postal Service delivery records, DTE Energy residential account data, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department records, and Detroit Land Bank Authority occupancy data, the city contends Detroit gained tens of thousands of residents in 2021.

The Census Bureau, without notice, stopped allowing cities to challenge population estimates this year. The lawsuit argues that the bureau’s own administrative rules allow challenges to annual estimates.

“The Census Bureau’s failure to follow its own program rules, and the conclusive evidence that Detroit’s population rose from 2020 and 2021, provide clear justification for a court to order the Bureau to fix the 2021 undercount so Detroiters can get their fair share of federal funds,” said Conrad Mallett, the city’s corporation counsel.

During the decennial count in 2020, the city’s population declined 10.5% over the past decade.

Detroit’s Black population was hit the hardest. While the Hispanic, Asian, and white populations grew over the past decade, the number of Black residents declined from about 586,000 to 500,000 between 2010 and 2020, according to the data.

The Census Bureau acknowledged that the 2020 figures undercounted the nation’s Black population by 3.3% and the Hispanic population by 5%.

Detroit’s Black and Hispanic populations account for more than 84% of its total population. Based on the bureau’s admission of undercounts, the city’s population would have been undercounted by more than 20,000.

For each resident missed in the 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.

Detroit neighborhood | Susan J. Demas

Detroit officials have long complained that residents are undercounted in the decennial count. 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.

As a result of the 2020 census count, Detroit no longer has the highest percentage of Black residents, as it did in 2010. Gary, Ind.,, and Jackson, Miss., now have larger shares of Black residents, according to the census.

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 three census counts.

“Census undercounts have alarming real world consequences that deprive cities like Detroit of their fair and intended share of critical funding for schools, hospitals, affordable housing, and more,” said U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield). “If the census is not accurate, then the annual population numbers that guide hundreds of billions of dollars in federal aid to communities and families are not accurate, either.”

This story first ran in the Detroit Metro Times. Subscribe to their newsletters, and follow them on Google News, Apple News, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, or TikTok.

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Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling is an award-winning investigative journalist with the Detroit Metro Times. He operated Motor City Muckraker, an online news site devoted to exposing abuses of power and holding public officials accountable. Neavling also hosted Muckraker Report on 910AM from September 2017 to July 2018. Before launching Motor City Muckraker, Neavling was a five-year veteran of the Detroit Free Press, covering Detroit’s city hall.