Detroit’s 2020 Census Planning Starts Now [CHART + MAPS]

City seeks to turn around decades of population decline.

Detroit was once the fourth-largest city in America. The population peaked at more than 1.8-million in 1950. For reasons too numerous to list here, people left the city. Today, the population is about a third of what it was a half-century ago. Mayor Mike Duggan has said his administration should be judged on whether the population starts to grow. The next nationwide census starts in 2020, but Duggan’s office has already started preparing a plan to count everyone, especially in places that are hard to count. The mayor tapped his neighborhoods director, Victoria Kovari, to lead the Detroit 2020 Census project.

Yes, people left, but…

That’s not the only reason why Detroit’s population dropped almost 25 percent from 2000 to 2010. Kovari says another factor was the response rate–that is, the percentage of people who answered the census. She says Detroit was the largest U.S. city with a lower response rate in 2010 than in 2000.

“We went from a 70 percent response rate to 64 percent,” Kovari says. “That was a big drop, and meant that thousands of people were not counted.”

Patrick Batcheller

Kovari says some people don’t answer the census because they don’t trust the federal government. Legally, the U.S. Census Bureau is restricted from sharing specifics even with other federal agencies. And it can’t release certain data for 72 years. Still, she says, people don’t trust the government with personal information about their households, and the people who live in them. That’s why the city plans to recruit residents to help census enumerators go door-to-door. Kovari, says it’s about building trust in the neighborhoods.

“The last five years, we’ve been deeply embedded in those districts,” Kovari says. “We know who the leaders are. And we’re pretty confident that we’ll be able to activate and engage a lot of the people and institutions in those areas.”

But some areas are harder to count than others.

And the city knows where those areas are, based on past censuses. 

“The Census Bureau has given every single tract in the country a low-response score,” Kovari says. “It’s just a predictor of the percent of people that are likely not to respond. So we have that data, and we’ve mapped it.” So has the Census Bureau, which has created an interactive map showing each census tract’s response rate (there’s a link below). 

Census 2020 Hart to Count map showing Detroit

Kovari says the city also knows which groups of people are hardest to count:

  • Children under 5 years old
  • Black and Hispanic adult males
  • Millenials
  • People who speak a foreign language

“We’re putting together a strategy of different interventions and outreach in those areas,” Kovari says.

Detroit Population Since 1950



10 yr change (%) Change since 1950 (%) U.S. Rank
1950 1,849,568 n/a n/a   5
1960 1,670,144   -9.7   -9.7   5
1970 1,511,482   -9.5 -18.3   5
1980 1,203,339 -20.5 -34.9   6
1990 1,027,974 -14.6 -44.4   7
2000    951,270   -7.5 -48.6 10
2010    713,777 -24.9 -61.4 18
2017(est.)    673,014   -5.7 -63.6 23

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Why does it matter?

Kovari says Detroit needs an accurate count in 2020, because a lot of federal money is riding on it. 

“Almost $6 billion for Medicaid is directly related to the census count,” Kovari says. “That’s huge in places like Detroit. That’s huge for the state of Michigan.” Census data also determine how much cities and states get for things like roads and Head Start programs for children. She says her office is working with Head Start and day care centers, teachers, and staff, so they understand how much of their funding depends on an accurate count. Kovari says it only takes ten minutes to answer the census form’s ten questions, but it’s going to take a lot of cooperation from people all over the city.

“Our plan is to send out rapid response teams,” Kovari says, “getting their neighbors to fill it out and understanding how important it is that they do.”

Click on the audio player to hear the conversation with WDET’s Pat Batcheller.

Detroit Census Map by WDET 101.9 FM on Scribd


  • Pat Batcheller
    Pat Batcheller is a host and Senior News Editor for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news, traffic and weather updates during Morning Edition. He is an amateur musician.