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Follow the Data Podcast: Census Series – The City of Detroit

Mayor Michael Duggan speaking to the crowd at a census rally in Detroit, Michigan.
Mayor Michael Duggan speaking to the crowd at a census rally in Detroit, Michigan.

The first episode of our census series was dedicated to the basics: who gets counted, what the survey is, when it takes place, why it matters, and how cities are preparing for the census.

To get a sense of specific preparation plans, we visited a Bloomberg Associates’ client city, Detroit, Michigan. The Mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, spoke to Bloomberg Associates Municipal Integrity Principal, Rose Gill Hearn, about his experience with the count, challenges that are specific to Detroit, the extensive efforts Detroit is making to prepare for the count and how he defines success.

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KATHERINE OLIVER: Welcome to Follow the Data, I’m your host, Katherine Oliver.

In part two of our series on the U.S. census, we dive deep into one city’s efforts to prepare for the largest population count in America. To get an insider’s perspective, we headed to one of Bloomberg Associates’ client cities, Detroit, Michigan — where Mayor Mike Duggan has a special connection to the census: he worked as an enumerator in 1980.

Bloomberg Associates’ Municipal Integrity Principal Rose Gill Hearn spoke to Mayor Duggan about how the city is working to encourage participation, coordinate with stakeholders, and communicate the impact of potential federal aid.

For each Detroiter who doesn’t get counted in the census, the city loses approximately $1,800 per year in federal aid for things like roads, schools, and healthcare — just to name a few. That is $18,000 per person for a ten-year period.

Earlier this year, the city of Detroit organized a rally to generate awareness and encourage participation of hard-to-count communities. Listen to hear more from the crowd, and the mayor.

BISHOP EDGAR VANN: It won’t be the people coming in from Washington counting us that will make the difference, it will be the people in this room, and the people across Detroit who are going to make this count, the best count we have ever had in the history of the city of Detroit. Let’s rise up to it, let’s go and get it done, it’s our time, it’s our turn, it’s our season, let’s get it done.

ROSE GILL HEARN: Thank you very much for being with us, Mayor Michael Duggan.  We are delighted to talk to you about what is happening in the City of Detroit about the 2020 census, which is bearing down on us and coming up next year.  First, could you explain to Detroiters and to our listeners, what is the census?

MAYOR MICHAEL DUGGAN:  Well, thanks, Rose.  And it’s always good to be with you.  The Constitution, from the start of country, provided that every ten years every person in the United States gets counted.  And it has now been so engrained in our way of life that every state legislative district, every congressional district, funding for numerous state and federal programs are all driven by that count.  To make sure that each of your individuals living in your community is counted becomes a high-stakes engagement.

GILL HEARN:  So, that speaks to why the census is so important for cities like Detroit.  Tell us a little bit about your goals for the 2020 census.

MAYOR DUGGAN:  Well, we want to get everybody counted.  It’s really that simple.  And in 2010, the city was coming off of a political crisis.  It had just had a change in administration and really did not organize for the count.  And, as a result, they had a lowest response rate of any city in the country.  And for the last decade it has cost us dearly not just in legislative representation but in funding, and so I think there are a lot of long-timers in Detroit who have the memory of that and who said this time we’re going to start early.

And so, we’ve gone to every community group, every nonprofit, every neighborhood group and said we’re going to reach out and reach everybody.  And, for a lot of people, it happens once every ten years, a lot of people don’t trust government. A lot of times it’s your neighbors, people in your social circles that are the most influential.

GILL HEARN:  Just so that Detroiters understand exactly what is at stake, the census count determines the amount of federal funding that states and cities receive for a number of important programs.  Can you tell listeners, what are some of the types of programs that flow from the census results?

MAYOR DUGGAN:  Well, the money around the country is allocated.  So, whether it’s your hot lunch programs at school, whether it’s Medicaid services for healthcare, for people of low income.  Almost everything that is distributed on a formula basis is distributed by population.  And if you get missed in 2020, you’re missed for the next ten years.

GILL HEARN:  Can you talk about our personal work experience with census that has informed you in your role as mayor of Detroit?

MAYOR DUGGAN:  Well, I was an enumerator, when I was in college in Ann Arbor, back in 1980.  And so, I spent the summer, knocking on doors in houses in the city of Ann Arbor, and I learned a lot.  I mean, I can remember it like it was yesterday.  And, you know, I grew up in a middle class community, in a, you know, politically active group.  I just thought filling it out was automatic.  I was amazed at the distrust, and I was knocking doors in racially-mixed neighborhoods.  And the minority undercount is real.  I know there’s been lots of studies that have proven it, but I saw it firsthand that people of color, when you start asking questions about their personal life and you’re from the government, are less likely to answer the questions than Caucasians.  It’s just the truth.

And so, when I saw that experience and I started to think about the 2020 census, I’m really thinking through the fact that we’ve got a higher lift than, than other cities, and, certainly, some of the practices of the federal government right now is not going to make it easier to count people of color and people from immigrant communities, all of whom, under the Constitution, are entitled to be counted.  The Constitution talks about counting persons.  It never said counting citizens.  And so, the burden here is going to be higher, and we just have to overcome it.

GILL HEARN: And what does the city stand to gain or lose based on each person who is counted or not counted?

MAYOR DUGGAN:   You know, the whole range of healthcare, social services, education, and the like is about $1,800 a person each year.  That’s, that’s what you end up losing.  So, over ten years, it’s $18,000 in support.  That adds up to real money when you’re trying to reach everybody in this community.  And so we’re out talking to folks that, for ten minutes, you’re covered for the next ten years and it’s worth $18,000.  And can we get you to help us out by answering these questions?

GILL HEARN: And that money goes to roads, and schools, and all the programs that you talked about.

MAYOR DUGGAN:  It does.  It’s very difficult to get legislature or Congress to override population formulas in order to get special categorical funding.  And, particularly, if you’re in an area of population decline, you don’t have the clout to try to override.  And, in this country, people of lower income haven’t been all that successful lobbying in Washington.

GILL HEARN:So, tell us a little bit about our strategies, for your municipal census campaign.

MAYOR DUGGAN:  Well, we, we took one of our most outstanding administrators, Vicky Kovari, and, while we hated to lose her out of the Department of Neighborhoods, said the impact of this is going to last a long time.  And we’re treating this like we would treat the organizing of a political campaign.  The Census Bureau can’t lawfully share with us who has responded and who has not.  In fact, they can’t share that with anybody for seventy years under the federal law.  But what they can do is share with us what response rates are in different areas—that block, that neighborhood.  And so, our intention is first to reach out in an education campaign, which we’re deeply engaged in now, to let folks know why it’s important and to let people know that you don’t have to worry.  By federal law, your information can’t be shared with any other federal department or any other outside agency.

Then next April, when the forms start coming out—and they’ll be electronic this time, you’ll be able to fill it out on your computer–once we start to get the response rates back to the Census Bureau, we believe they’re going to share with us where response rates are lower.  And we are going to flood the streets with folks, knocking on doors, saying, “Have you answered the census question?  Would you please fill it in?  Here’s what it means to us.” And, and we’re going to move across the city with folks from these neighborhoods, talking to their neighbors about why it’s important.

GILL HEARN: So, a ground campaign and a smart use of data.

MAYOR DUGGAN: Smart use of data, smart use of social media, which is going to be an important part of this as well.

GILL HEARN:And you’ve also emphasized something that, I think is worth discussing a little bit further, which is the confidentiality of responses that people provide.

MAYOR DUGGAN:  Yeah.  And if you’re really interested—and people who are into Ancestry dot com know this—under federal law, the census data is released seventy years later.  So, right now you can see the census data from 1940.  I can actually look up where my father was living when he was 5 years old and find it.  But anything past 1940 is locked by federal law, cannot be shared with any other agency or anybody else.

You don’t have to worry about it going over to ICE, you don’t have to worry about it going to some law enforcement official, you don’t have to worry about it going anyplace.  And there are significant federal penalties.  And so, we anticipate there’s going to be an element of fear, which tends to work against the count of communities of color.  And what we have to do is overcome that by just continually emphasizing that the law is not going to inquire about them. Every person in this country is entitled to be counted, and has been since the start of our country.

GILL HEARN: Mr. Mayor, just tell us a little bit about the ground game that you and Vicky Kovari are launching throughout the city.

MAYOR DUGGAN:  Well, one of the first things we’re doing are putting together neighborhood coordinators, 200 volunteers, to get the message out now, so well ahead of your forms coming in the mail next year.  And they’re doing a great job.  They’re getting out in the community, coming to the neighborhood meetings, saying, “This is coming.”  And people get used to seeing the lady they know as their block club leader, the, the fellow they know as their barber, these folks telling them early on, “Let’s be ready for this and let’s participate.”  And then we’ll phase from there, when the actual forms go out next year, into an active door-to-door campaign.

GILL HEARN: So you’ll have a network of recruited neighborhood leaders covering all the territory in the census tracts?

MAYOR DUGGAN:  Yeah.  We, we have a good network already, and we’re continuing to fill it in by the day.  But, yes, to have volunteers on the ground who can tell us what they’re hearing, how our messaging’s working, where they’re seeing people and where they’re not.  And, of course, there’s going to be a time when I want to know, are these federal census employees really out there and the numbers they’re supposed to be.  And they’ll be our eyes and ears on that as well.

GILL HEARN: And my understanding is that she and her team will be opening up many assistance centers throughout the city next year to facilitate people who have questions and folks who may have questions about how to be counted online.

MAYOR DUGGAN:  You know, it’s going to be an interesting process.  And so, people can fill these out on, on personal computers, on tablets, and the like.  And so, we will be pretty much any place you would walk into, including libraries, restaurants, hospitals, public centers, and the like.  And there will be somebody there with a computer, saying, “Have you been counted?  Sit down, you can fill out the form yourself.” And so, these assistance centers are going to be ubiquitous in the City of Detroit.  And, and, hopefully, that continual reassuring message will work, but this is something new that we haven’t tried.  Except we did a version of it, the Affordable Care Act, when President Obama was enrolling people for what we now call Obamacare, Detroit was one of the national leaders in enrollments.  Like, the President came here and gave me an award.  But we did the same thing.  We were everywhere with helpers with their laptops open, saying, “Do you want to enroll in healthcare insurance?  Are you eligible?  Here’s how it works.” And so, we’ve got some history in doing it.  Now we’ve got to extend it to much bigger numbers.

GILL HEARN: And my understanding is that here, in the Detroit area, your corporate and philanthropic community has really come together, and you’ve got a nice amount of money fund-raised to both do a communication campaign and to help expand the infrastructure.

MAYOR DUGGAN:  Well, the Michigan Association of Nonprofits has been terrific statewide.  And so, they’ve coordinated a lot of national money in a statewide campaign, and we’re partnered very closely with them.  On the other hand, there are different challenges counting in Detroit than in most of the rest of the state, and we’ve seen the Ford Foundation, and General Motors, and several others who are committed to getting this count right and who have been financing it as well.

And the, the whole public relations campaign, we’re going to have to see.  If you see the kind of stuff that we saw in the last election, where people were being scared not to vote, it’s possible you could see the same kind of social media, Facebook type campaigns, scaring people out of filling out the census form targeted at a particular group of people that folks on the other side don’t want counted.  And so, we’re going to have to do two things at once.  We’re going to have to fight a social media messaging campaign, and we’re going to have to work door to door on the ground.  And we’re going to do both of those things at once to the best of our ability.

GILL HEARN: It sounds like you’re doing everything that a city could possibly do to effectuate the most robust count possible.  So congratulations and I expect great results.

MAYOR DUGGAN:  We usually congratulate ourselves when it’s over, but right now I’m feeling very good about where it is.  And I’m mostly feeling good about the spirit of unity in this community around this.  It really has been special.

GILL HEARN: Absolutely.  Thank you, Mr. Mayor.

Since the recording of my conversation with Mayor Michael Duggan about the 2020 census, on June 27th the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling blocking the Trump Administration’s plan to include the so called “citizenship question” on the 2020 Census form sent to all U.S. households.  The Court stated that the Government had provided a “contrived” reason for wanting people to report their citizenship status, and sent the case back for further review.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the court’s unanimous opinion stating, “…viewing the evidence as a whole, this Court shares the [lower] Court’s conviction that the decision to reinstate a citizenship question cannot adequately be explained in terms of the [Department of Justice’s] request for improved citizenship data to better enforce the [Voting Rights Act].”

Tune in for part three of the Follow the Data Census series, to hear more about next steps in this case and its rejection of the Administration’s attempt to add the citizenship question to the 2020 census.

OLIVER: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data.

Thanks to Mayor Mike Duggan and Rose Gill Hearn for joining us today. If you missed the first part of our series, be sure to listen to episode #47 “Census Series – The Who, What, When, Where, Why”

This episode was produced by Electra Colevas, Jaime Lavin, Ivy Li and Emily Mayrath, music by Mark Piro. Special thanks to Eric Sheppard and Tim Herro.

I’m Katherine Oliver, thanks for listening.