Detroit sues Census bureau over 2021 population estimates, argues figure 'divorced from reality'

Mayor Mike Duggan says the city is suing the U.S. Census Bureau for access to the formula it uses for annual population estimates after the federal department said Detroit's population fell by thousands more in 2021.

The lawsuit is separate from the city's challenge that bureau undercounted Detroit's population by tens of thousands of people. The federal government has yet to respond to the challenge.

However, Duggan did admit that the 2020 census count could "compound" the error in population estimates that are released every year, costing residents potentially millions of dollars in funding.

"This defies reality with cranes all over this city. Fourteen major apartments opened last year," the mayor said. "How could anybody conclude we lost 7,000 people in one year?"

For Detroit to challenge the population estimates, it would need to show evidence that the formula used by the federal government failed to accurately count the city's population. The head of the U.S. Census Bureau has admitted that minority populations like African American and Hispanic groups were undercounted by 3 and 5% respectively.

But Duggan said the admission only scratches the surface. 

The mayor said DTE, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, and the U.S. Postal Service all showed growth among properties now being serviced.

Duggan said the utility company added approximately 7,500 homes in 2021, DWSD added approximately 6,000 homes, and the post office was now delivering mail to 4,400 more homes. 

But when Detroit asked for the formula to compare population estimates, the census bureau told the city it would not be allowing challenges to population estimates in 2021 and declined to give over the formula. 

"We don't know what formula they used because they won't tell us," Duggan said.

The Corporation Counsel for the city Conrad Mallett Jr. said historically the bureau provides an opportunity for cities to correct inaccuracies. But the commerce department and census bureau suspended the program that estimates populations in 2021, before announcing it planned to do so again in 2022. 

"We believe the census bureau's refusal to consider the evidence that its 2021 estimate of Detroit's population is wrong, is in direct violation of its own rule, and will cause city of Detroit residents decades-long harm," he said.

Detroit challenges 2020 Census numbers

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a higher percentage of African Americans were undercounted over the last decade. 

The federal government confirmed the undercount amid Detroit's challenge that at least 8% of occupied homes across 10 neighborhoods was missed. A formal challenge to the final numbers was filed in March, 2022.

A letter to the census bureau from the mayor declared insufficient resources and too few census takers were available to count the population in Detroit. If true, the majority-Black city's official population would be off by tens of thousands of people.

MORE BACKGROUND: Detroit plans to fight census count after 10.5 percent population drop

According to population estimates taken in 2019, the city's population was 670,052. In 2020, that figure dropped to 639,111 - a 31,000 decline. A University of Michigan sociology professor called the difference "really implausible" in an interview with the Associated Press.

Duggan expects to win their challenge when officials release their decision, but said the city would sue if its denied. 

Detroit sues the federal government

Detroit's complaint against the federal government was filed Sept. 20. It argues the census bureau is failing to follow its own rules by making the formula used in population estimates each year available for the city.

Based on 2021's population estimate, Detroit lost 7,000 more people. But according to data from utility and postal departments that service Detroit, the city actually added tens of thousands of residents last year.

City Attorney Conrad Mallett Jr. said that in the past if a municipality believed its population estimate was inaccurate, it could pursue a remedy by using evidence and the bureau's formula. But, according to a complaint filed by the city, the bureau "refuses to disclose" the specific ways it reaches that estimate.

On top of that, the traditional option that cities use to challenge the figure was canceled in 2021 and 2022. They did not provide a reason why.

"The Census Bureau’s failure to follow its own program rules, and the conclusive evidence that Detroit’s population rose from 2020 and 2021, provide clear justification for a court to order the Bureau to fix the 2021 undercount so Detroiters can get their fair share of federal funds," said Mallett.