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Closings and Delays

Problems Could Cause A Census Undercount In Kalamazoo

April 5 2020 file photo shows an envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a resident of Detroit
Paul Sancya
AP Photo

The U.S. Census has been ordered by a federal court to keep counting people after Wednesday, September 30 deadline. But some people who are doing the counting in southwest Michigan say that may not be enough to ensure a “complete count.”

(Note: WMUK is not identifying Census workers interviewed for this story, and disguising their voices, because they signed an oath not to reveal details of Census operations.)

"You don't have to be Miss Michigan, or a teacher, to help Michigan get to the head of the class for completing the 2020 Census before the September 30th deadline. Just go to The Census takes less than ten minutes, but those ten minutes can help all Michiganders for the next ten years."

On Friday, September 25, a federal judge ordered the Census Bureau to ignore the deadline set by the Trump Administration and keep counting through the end of October. One Census field supervisor in Kalamazoo are still skeptical about the end result.

"It's sad to know that, for the first time, we're really not going to get an accurate count. And it's so important to everybody in the United States to have that count be correct."

Census workers who spoke to WMUK have related a litany of problems they say have gotten in the way of an accurate count. One enumerator, one of the workers who contact people in person, says there are a few barriers.

"The bad dogs; the mad dogs; the 'No Trespassing' signs; the stairs that are falling down that you have to go up; the gun muzzle decals on the door."

Those could be problems during any Census. But this year there have also been complaints about overly rigid Census rules and new technology. This is the first “all digital” Census. Workers were given iPhones with a special app to do their field surveys. But this supervisor says there have been some problems.

"Sometimes it doesn't work. It'll freeze up or, if they're out in a rural area, there's no cell service."

Kalamazoo-area Census workers also say they’ve had to spend too much time trying to find students living on or near Western Michigan University’s campus. That’s because the COVID-19 pandemic sent most of them home in March, so they weren’t there to be counted April 1st. They also say trying to reach “proxies” like landlords and rental agencies to get information about residents who are gone has been a headache. And this field supervisor says that will hurt people in the community who are most vulnerable.

"The poor people. The people that need representation. You know, they are not being counted yet. We really need to get to those areas we haven't yet."

He estimates that, at best, 75-percent of people in the Kalamazoo area have been covered by the Census. If true, that means more than 6,200 people in the county haven't been counted yet. That’s a more pessimistic estimate than one by Kerry Ebersole Singh. She was appointed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to coordinate with the Census Bureau and to run the campaign encouraging people to participate.

"We're estimating that there's still 4,000 people or 1,500 households that are yet to be enumerated. And that would equate to about $11.6 million every year into the City of Kalamazoo."

That dollar figure is the amount the city could lose in federal funding. Census numbers are used to allocate federal money for a wide range of programs, including housing and community development. They’re also used to redraw the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts every ten years.

Singh says she thinks the Census Bureau has tried to respond to complaints by its field workers.

"They take down those concerns. They are working with their staff. But, you know, there's been a ton of challenges throughout this Census."

Even so, Singh says she’s optimistic that the extra time will allow a complete and accurate count of Michigan’s population by the end of October. And Census workers like this field supervisor say they’re not ready to quit.

"I have always been told by the folks that are above me that there's plenty of work to do."

State and local officials are urging people to fill out their Census forms online - or cooperate when enumerators knock on their door.

Andy Robins has been WMUK's News Director since 1998 and a broadcast journalist for over 24 years. He joined WMUK's staff in 1985. Under his direction, WMUK has received numerous awards for news reporting.