Detroit struggles while tiny suburbs are nationwide census leaders

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the extended date for when the census count ends.
The COVID-19 pandemic dealt Michigan a bitter hand as one of the deadliest states.
But in the 2020 Census, Michigan’s a winner. The state is ranked third in the nation for its high response rate in the most recent tally.
That could pay off for years to come because the more Michiganders who get counted, the more federal dollars will flow here, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, a regional planning agency.
Contributing in a big way are two small towns in Oakland County’s Woodward Corridor, although Detroit is struggling with its count and this week planned to launch door-to-door pleas to “please fill out the form.”
Pleasant Ridge (pop: about 2,500) is ranked 21st in the nation for its lofty response rate, 89.1%. Just north of there, Huntington Woods (pop: about 6,300) is ranked third-highest U.S. city, with a sky-high response rate of 91.8%.
For comparison, Warren notched a respectable 75.3%, Farmington Hills logged 72.4%, Dearborn tallied 69.9% and Detroit came in at 47.4%. These are preliminary figures, because the 2020 census is still on-going. The deadline for ending the count was recently extended from late summer to Oct. 31 because of the pandemic.
But in many areas, the data may not change much because most Michiganders have received their census forms by now, SEMCOG research director Xuan Liu said.
The nation’s top-ranked city — North River, North Dakota — had a whopping 100% response rate but just 56 residents in the last census. The second-ranked city is Balltown, Iowa, with a 97% response rate but a piddling 68 residents in the 2010 census.
More: Find the rate for any town in southeast Michigan with SEMCOG’s Census 2020 Self-Response Rate Finder map and tool
High response rates to the census are linked to high income and education levels but also to a community’s level of internet access, now that the census form is so quickly and easily filled out online, Liu said. In addition, some communities heavily promote answering the questionnaire, knowing that every extra resident that Uncle Sam tallies reaps a bigger harvest of Washington’s greenbacks.
In Huntington Woods, “our city manager did a beautiful job of letting our residents know the dollar value of responding to the census” via the city’s website and other communications, City Commissioner Jeff Jenks said.
Affluence predominates in that small town adjacent to the Detroit Zoo. As a result, Jenks said that one challenge was getting the “snowbirds” — those who winter in warm climes like Miami Beach and Scottsdale — to count themselves on the census as Michiganders.
“If they live here for at least six months of the year, they should be counted here,” he said.
The high response rate for Huntington Woods on census forms was no surprise, Jenks confessed. The city is well-known for its passionately civic-minded ethos. That results in high voter turnouts in every election, and in one of Oakland County’s highest participation rates for recycling — exceeding by about four times the statewide average of 15%, according to previous Free Press reports.
“We have a relatively high trust of government here,” Jenks said.
“And this spring, we could’ve also been influenced by the fact that a lot of the kids normally away in college were home when the census forms arrived. So the young people were puter, sitting next to mom and dad, getting this done,” he said.
The online form “only takes about two minutes” to complete, he added.
Just across I-696 from Huntington Woods lies Pleasant Ridge, Mayor Kurt Metzger reigns following a long career as an expert in compiling and analyzing population statistics. There’s more to a high response rate than just income and college degrees, Metzger said.
More than just a very high education levels, “what you have in Pleasant Ridge, and in Huntington Woods, is that feeling of being part of a community” that makes people wanting to support the census and, by extension, their hometowns, he said.
“People move here because of our groups — the readers club, the knitters club, the garden club, the historical commission. . . We’re small enough where you know all the police officers. You walk around the block and it takes you two hours because you know everybody,” Metzger said.
Early in his career, before conducting demographic research at Wayne State University and for the United Way, Metzger worked for the U.S. Census Bureau. He still takes a strong interest in each count, including the disastrous 2010 count in Detroit.
“Detroit in 2010 did nothing. We had the recession and no effort coming from the mayor’s office, and so they lost 200-and-some thousand (residents). That count was much lower than anyone anticipated.
“This year, Duggan and the city were doing everything right. And then the pandemic hit and all their plans were scuttled. Really it’s at the point now in Detroit where it has to be person to person, door to door,” if the count is to go up, he said.
A frustrating irony of the census is that communities needing federal dollars the most tend to have the lowest response rates. In poverty-pocked Highland Park, the response rate so far is 44.3%.
In Detroit, the rate of 47.4% has city officials concerned. They’re working hard to nudge it well past 50%, said Vicki Kovari, an appointee of Mayor Mike Duggan who heads the city’s census campaign. In early spring, Detroit had a very respectable showing among big cities, Kovari said.
“We were ahead of Cleveland, Philadelphia and others. We’d planned over 90 sign-up events because we knew that internet access was low in the city. So we were planning to be at churches, senior centers, apartment houses, parks — dozens and dozens of events — and then we had to drop all that when COVID hit,” she said.
Kovari pivoted to phone calls, recruiting more than 100 volunteers to a phone bank that so far made 60,000 calls to Detroiters. She and her staff arranged a virtual concert with 45 local and national artists, and “we handed out 3,000 yard signs at King High School, plus we have a mailing that should hit mailboxes at the end of this week,” Kovari said.
Some parts of Detroit have high response rates. The Sherwood Forest neighborhood of Detroit, northeast of Livernois Avenue and Seven Mile Road, “is right up there with 85%,” she said.
But pulling down the average are rock-bottom rates in low-income neighborhoods, where few households have computers and many residents find the printed census form confusing.
More: Fill out the Census so everyone counts | Feedback
More: You wouldn’t know this traditional Huntington Woods home has an addition
“The overriding problem we see is that folks are just not comfortable with the form. The paper form is almost exactly like the online form, and a lot of people are not familiar with computer forms. There’s a great fear of making a mistake. Also, literacy is definitely part of this. I can’t tell you how many people ask me to read it to them,” Kovari said.
Another disincentive? “There’s a fear that if you put information down, it’ll be shared with the Friend of the Court,” the county agency that collects child-support payments. Finally, in some neighborhoods, particularly in southwest Detroit, there can be a language barrier among Spanish or Arabic speakers, Kovari said.
With Michigan’s overall rate at nearly 68%, well above the nationwide average of about 62%, every extra Detroiter spells a mini-windfall for the cash-strapped Great Lakes State. If Detroit can nudge its rate up even slightly, the impact could tot up tens of thousands more Michiganders for the 2020 Census, Kovari said.
“We have the lowest internet response rate of any big city in the country. So unfortunately, the digital divide is alive and well here,” she added.
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