Michigan was the only state to lose population in the 2010 U.S. census. The decline was less than one percent, but it cost Michigan a seat in Congress.
Since then, the numbers have bounced back. The Census Bureau estimates almost 10 million people were living here in 2018. The state had gained about 110,000 residents since the last census, more than twice the number of people it had lost.
But two faster-growing states — Georgia and North Carolina — have pushed Michigan from the eighth most populous state to tenth.
Kerry Ebersole Singh, who’s leading the state’s 2020 census outreach efforts, says that could cost Michigan another voice in Washington D.C.
“Congressional seats are allocated by our census count,” Singh says.
“If we want to be in the hunt to maintain our voice in Washington, we need to ensure that we count everyone.” — Kerry Ebersole Singh, Michigan Census Outreach
Representation is one of several things at stake in the 2020 census. Michigan’s share of funds for federal programs such as Medicare also depends on how many people answer the decennial survey.
The challenge is getting people to respond. Singh says Michigan’s response rate was almost 80 percent in 2010, but is in danger of dropping in 2020.
The Census Bureau conducts a survey before every count, asking people if they plan to participate.
“Eighty-five percent of people said ‘yes’ in 2010, yet we had a 78 percent response rate,” Singh says. “That number fell to 67 percent for the 2020 census. Going into this one, there are fewer people planning to fill out their census forms.”
Singh says the state is working with churches, businesses, nonprofits, labor unions and foundations to reach as many people as possible, especially in places where response rates are low. Detroit, for example, had a 64 percent response rate in 2010. Rates were even lower in some rural areas, such as Lake County in the northern Lower Peninsula, where three in ten people answered the census.
Singh says many people are afraid to respond because they don’t trust the government. She says allaying those fears is crucial.
“The information is confidential,” Singh says. “It’s not exchanged with any other agency or individual.”
Another barrier to participation is a lack of internet access. The 2020 census will be conducted mostly online, but one in four Michigan households does not have broadband internet service. The Census Bureau will send paper questionnaires first to areas with low response rates and a lack of internet access.
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Click on the player to hear Pat Batcheller’s interview with Kerry Ebersole Singh and read a transcript, edited for clarity, below.
Pat Batcheller, 101.9, WDET: Why does the census matter to Michigan?
Kerry Ebersole Singh, executive director of 2020 census for the State of Michigan: This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for our state. There are several things at stake, one of which is our congressional representation. Seats are allocated by our census count. Michigan has been growing, but a bit more slowly than other states. So, if we want to be in the hunt to maintain our voice in Washington, D.C., we need to ensure that we count everyone. The second piece is critical federal funding. We’re talking about $30 billion annually for 55 top federal programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, nutrition programs for seniors, school lunch programs and the list goes on. If those dollars don’t come here, they’re going to another state.
Michigan’s response rate in the last two censuses was almost 80 percent. Was Michigan under-counted in the last census, and if so, why, and how do you plan address that?
In 2010, we had a 78 percent self-response rate. That was tied for fifth in the nation, which is great. We did have some areas in the state that were under-counted. The Census Bureau conducts a study prior to every count. They ask people, “do you plan on filling out your census form?” Eighty-five percent of people said ‘yes’ in 2010, yet we had a 78 percent response rate. That number fell to 67 percent for the 2020 census. Going into this one, there are fewer people planning to fill out their census form.
Detroit’s response rate for 2010 was about 64 percent. Some rural counties had lower rates, closer to 50 percent. What are you doing to reach people in those areas and explain to them why it’s important to take part?
We want people to know that answering the census is convenient. You can fill it out by phone, mail or paper form. The information is confidential. It’s not exchanged with any other agency or individual. And it’s critical to our state. We want to raise awareness around those three points. We are fortunate that under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s leadership, as well as our bipartisan committee, that we’ve been able to secure additional funding to build out additional programs and outreach, working with our partners in communities to build awareness.
One thing the city of Detroit is doing is working with neighborhood groups and community leaders to build trust in places where response rates are low. The belief is that more people might be inclined to answer the Census if they’re being encouraged by those they know. What’s Michigan’s role in reaching out to those trusted voices?
We have partnerships across the state. We recognize those community partners that are known in the neighborhoods are going to be stronger messengers than anyone with the state. We also want to access any surrogates or celebrities that may also connect — or just understand the awareness and the need for the census — to make sure they’re a part of our program.
The Census Bureau will ask most Americans to take part online. But not everyone in Michigan is connected. In fact, about one-fourth of all households in Michigan do not have a broadband internet subscription. The bureau will mail paper questionnaires to areas with limited internet access and low response rates — that includes Detroit and many rural communities. What is the state doing to reach those communities and get them to answer the census either way?
A couple of ways. One, the Michigan Township Association is part of our ‘complete count’ committee. Townships cover a lot of rural areas. We’re partnering with them to spread awareness. We’re also looking at direct mail pieces that would reach people who might not have internet access. We’re also reaching out by phone. Some who don’t have broadband access might still have a land line. We want to connect with them.
There’s an effort in the state of Georgia led by Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor there, to provide mobile Wi-Fi in smaller, remote communities of color. Are you aware of any such effort here?
We’ve had very preliminary conversations with some of our partners such as Verizon and AT&T. We hope we can mimic some of this things. The Michigan Secretary of State has a mobile unit that they’re willing to deploy to under-counted areas. It will have Wi-Fi access. Keep in mind the state government’s footprint is huge. We have 600 kiosks through the Department of Health and Human Services that will also provide access to the Census.
What else should people know?
Another part of our ‘complete count’ effort involves churches, business, nonprofits, labor unions and foundations. We want to deepen our outreach through those communities and work with the governor’s point person on faith to engage people and make sure that anywhere you go, you hear how convenient the census is and how critical it is to our state.