Mich. has 3rd-highest census participation, but has a ways to go to hit goal

COVID-19 proving to be a challenge

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Michigan set out with a big goal for the 2020 census — 82% participation — but so far is falling short. Only 55% of Michiganders have filled their census out, but that’s enough to put the state in the top three nationally.

The COVID-19 outbreak has had a devastating impact on the health and economy of Michigan, and not surprisingly, appears to be playing a negative role in how many people get counted this year. Leaders have been encouraging people to fill out the census online during the time, especially as millions are at home.

Kerry Ebersole Singh, the statewide census director, said COVID-19 has created “quite the challenge,” which is why the “Michigan Be Counted” campaign, a collaboration between the state of Michigan, U.S. Census Bureau and the Michigan Nonprofit Association, has created another goal to increase the participation by 10% by the end of April.

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On Monday, the U.S. Census Bureau announced it will ramp up data collection and field operations starting June 1. 

“The U.S. Census Bureau cannot begin field operations until the health and safety of Michiganders are protected with the outbreak of COVID-19,” Ebersole Singh said. “We won’t know for sure when it’s safe and can fully implement the door to door operation beginning June 1 until we get approval from Michigan Public Health officials, probably sometime in late May.”

She said that federal and state government officials will coordinate to make that decision, but as long as census forms are filled out online or by the phone by April 30, census-takers will not need to go door-to-door. 

This is the largest census campaign in state history, with an unprecedented $16 million allocated by the state Legislature for outreach and participation. 

In 2010, 78% of the state’s population completed the census. The census determines how much federal funding Michigan receives for public safety, health care, education, roads and infrastructure through 2030. 

“We are not in a place to leave any resources on the table,” Ebersole Singh said. “And these are our federal tax dollars we’ve already paid to Washington, D.C., and one of the easiest ways to get them back into our state and our communities is completing the census form.”

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State Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit), said his Detroit-based district in Southeast Michigan has been especially hard hit by the COVID-19 outbreak, and that has made it harder to do census outreach. He said some of his constituents in Wayne County are even “less likely to get their mail” during the pandemic. 

However, more than half the households in metro Detroit have filled out their census forms. In Oakland County, it’s 63.1%, Macomb County is at 64.6% and Wayne County, which Hollier represents is at 51.5%.. 

The city of Detroit is also surpassing many large cities across the country in participation rates, including New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Cleveland and Miami.

State Rep. Julie Calley (R-Portland) said other cities in Michigan, especially on the west side of the state, have some room for improvement, including Muskegon, Holland, Benton Harbor, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and St. Joseph. 

Households in northern Michigan face unique challenges when it comes to filling out the census, said State Rep. Sue Allor (R-Wolverine). 

“We have more renters compared to the state average, we have more households that are less likely to have internet access and more residents are living in poverty than many Michigan communities. These demographics are all contributors to a lower census count,” Allor said. “That’s why I’m looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and making as many calls to constituents as I have to, and going door-to-door in my district as soon as it’s safe, of course.”

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State Rep. Sara Cambensy (D-Marquette) says she is concerned about representation for tribal areas in the Upper Peninsula, noting that these communities have lower participation rates than tribal areas downstate. 

“Based on this new data, I think there is work that we can do strategically to increase the U.P. tribal areas,” Cambensy said. “I’m also hopeful that the new activities by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Michigan Be Counted campaign are going to help start increasing participation across the U.P.”

Will college towns see less participation? 

When the census campaign kicked off in late February, COVID-19 was still weeks away from being detected in the state, and students never imagined that many of them would soon move back home and take classes online.

For many students who are split between two homes, one at college and one with their parents, the campaign aimed to simplify the confusion by telling them to fill out the form based on where they would be living on April 1. 

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But amid the chaos of the COVID-19 outbreak, this may have created more confusion.

“I think it has been a challenge for college students and there has been some confusion, and I would say that this also sometimes applies to our snowbirds, as well,” Ebersole Singh said, referring to retirees who have a second residence out of state. 

To simplify it now, the campaign is encouraging Michiganders to file using the address where they live at least six months out of the year under normal circumstances. 

Ebersole Singh said the campaign has also been reaching college students through texting and working with universities across the state to ensure that they are communicating with students.

7 actions for 7 days

On Monday, the Michigan census campaign launched “Seven Days of Action,” a statewide effort to encourage friends and family members to fill out their census forms:

Rep. Julie Calley talks about the census, Feb. 26, 2020 | Allison Donahue
  • Monday, April 13: Call, email or text 20 friends and family members and encourage them to complete their census forms.
  • Tuesday, April 14: Host a Zoom Happy Hour or Coffee Hour to discuss the importance of participating in the census.
  • Wednesday, April 15: Submit a letter to the editor to your local newspaper encouraging readers to fill out their census forms
  • Thursday, April 16: Join a virtual town hall at 4 p.m. 
  • Friday, April 17: Call or email your neighbors or neighborhood associations, encouraging residents to fill out their census forms.
  • Saturday, April 18: Snap a photo of your completed census form and post it on your favorite social media platform. Then, tag 10 friends and challenge them to do the same.
  • Sunday, April 19: Volunteer for a virtual phone bank encouraging Michiganders to fill out their census forms.

The 2020 census includes nine questions, including name, age, gender, ethnicity, race, number of people in the household, anyone else staying in the house, if you own or rent your home and your phone number.