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Coronavirus Makes Detroit’s Census Count More Challenging Than Ever

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Image credit: U.S. Census Bureau

Eighty six percent of Census tracts in Detroit are considered “hard-to-count.” With face-to-face interactions limited nationally, reaching neighborhoods will be more difficult than ever.

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According to an analysis by the Associated Press, Detroit will be the hardest city to count this Census.

The study shows that the vast majority of the city’s census tracts are difficult to count for a litany of reasons, ranging from fluid housing to lack of individual responses. Detroit could lose up to $5,000 in federal funding for programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid for every person left uncounted.

To address those issues, city officials were in the midst of a campaign that tapped the likes of Kash Doll and Icewear Vezzo to get Detroiters counted, as volunteers planned to reach out to neighbors face-to-face. But that effort is even more difficult now that the coronavirus pandemic has gripped the nation.

Now that presumably people have time on their hands because everything is canceled, this is the best time to do the Census. - Vicky Kovari, Executive Director of Detroit’s 2020 Census effort

Vicky Kovari is the Executive Director of the Detroit Census campaign. She tells WDET’s Eli Newman that the city had planned for a series of events to kick-off the Census count, but that was before the outbreak started.

We’re really trying to shift from those events, to phone calls, to more social media, or digital communications on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and trying to engage in more one to one contact that doesn’t involve a physical presence somewhere,” says Kovari.

Click on the player above to hear Vicky Kovari discuss the challenges of counting Detroit during the coronavirus pandemic, and read the transcript, edited for length and clarity, below.


Eli Newman, 101.9 WDET: So canvassing then isn’t happening?

Vicky Kovari, City of Detroit: Well, we’re planning to postpone it. It was supposed to happen at the end of this month. And what we’ve told the groups that are going to be doing the canvassing is that we’ll come up with the date after April 1st. And the first pass of the canvassing will be just putting door knockers on people’s door. And then the second pass, we’ll figure that out. We really had planned to target areas that have low response, we should find out from the Census Bureau, what the actual response rates are in every single census tract in the city. We don’t expect that the response rates will look really good, but we’re going to then look at deploying canvassers sometime later in April or even May, to those areas of low response.

In Detroit, what are those hard to count populations?

The Census Bureau considers the vast majority of places in Detroit neighborhoods and census tracts hard-to-count. That’s because of a confluence of factors like lots of renters, people who are low income, minorities, and folks that are not regularly connected to the internet. Plus the housing stock in Detroit has changed drastically in 10 years. So we have lots of demolitions. We have new construction for the first time in decades. So all of those factors make us really, really challenging to count. So the Census Bureau considers roughly 86% of all the census tracts in the city hard to count, and are getting now both that paper form and the internet letter.

That 86% statistic reflected Detroit before this whole pandemic situation. So what is it looking like now?

They’re still at risk of being undercounted. We’ve launched our text messaging to ask people to sign up to get regular reminders about the Census updates on how we’re responding across the city. Our volunteers Census captains are going to be starting to make literally hundreds if not thousands of phone calls, beginning the end of this week and next. 

So with the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, have there become populations that have become harder to count as a result?

The most challenging population now are folks that live in group homes or what the Census Bureau calls ‘group quarters’ and college students. So college students are counted in their dorms. They’ll still be counted in their dorms, but people in nursing homes and prisons in adult foster care homes, all of those folks are being counted now. The Census Bureau has asked the directors of those places to submit spreadsheets and administrative records to count folks. But especially in [homeless] shelters, that population is really fluid. And so it’s hard to figure out at what point you really count people. They’re also supposed to do a physical count of the homeless, March 30th and 31st. So we have not heard that that has been delayed. But at any moment that could change like a whole lot of things.

And so what we’re encouraging and trying to get the message out, is the residency rule of our college students has not changed. You are counted where you are attending school. And even if you’re temporarily at home, you’re still supposed to use your address at your university-related address.

So we’re seeing a lot of day-to-day activities be suspended. A lot of government operations be suspended as a result of what’s going on right now. I’m wondering is the Census project considering approaching the federal government and asking for some sort of extension of a deadline or additional funding to help in these efforts?

We are not asking the Census Bureau to delay the census because I know that it’s really, really difficult when you’ve been planning something for 10 years, to all of a sudden change midstream. We’re going to leave it up to them because they’re the ones that are going to have enumerators on the street. If people have not filled out their form by the end of April, then the census takers are scheduled to go out starting May 13th, to knock on doors. Right now, that has not changed. They’re beginning to train folks. They’re hiring people still, we have not heard that that’s going to change.

And I think groups are being very careful about calling on the Census Bureau to do an extension because that requires a huge amount of of change to their workforce, etc. So we’re going to just let them do their job. And we’re planning according to what the reality is now. Trying to really encourage folks to fill out the Census from the comfort of their own home, they can do it from their computer, they can fill out the census online from their phone, they can call a toll free number.

The Census website is live, it’s easy. It’s at ‘my2020census.gov.’ Anybody can go on there right now and fill it out. You don’t need a code, even though they ask you what your code is. That’s what you’re going to get in the mail. But even if you don’t have one, you can still fill it out or just be a few more questions.

Plus, the paper form. Eighty six percent of the people will have a paper form so it’s really easier than ever to fill out the Census right now without going anywhere. And now that presumably people have time on their hands because everything is canceled. This is the best time to do the Census.


Eli Newman, Reporter/Producer

Eli Newman is a Reporter/Producer for 101.9 WDET, covering breaking news, politics and community affairs. His favorite Motown track is “It’s The Same Old Song” by the Four Tops.

eli.newman@wdet.org Follow @other_eli

This post is a part of Coronavirus in Michigan.

101.9 WDET, Detroit’s NPR Station, is committed to providing accurate, up-to-date information on coronavirus, and it's related illness COVID-19, in Michigan. 

This post is a part of DET Counts.

The 2020 U.S. Census is upon us, and Michigan is gearing up to make sure every resident is counted. 

But it's more than just population — the Census determines representation and federal funding too. 

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