City files federal lawsuit challenging 2021 US Census population estimate


City files federal lawsuit challenging 2021 US Census population estimate

  • Multiple data sources show Census Bureau missed more than 20,000 residents in 2021 estimate, on top of those missed during 2020 Census
  • Census Bureau has decided to no longer allow challenges, leaving the city no other option outside of the court system

DETROIT, Michigan - The City of Detroit today filed a lawsuit in US District Court claiming the US Census Bureau’s 2021 population estimate continues to short Detroit’s population by tens of thousands of residents and register population losses, despite numerous data sources that show the city’s population is growing. The suit also demonstrates the Bureau violated its own policies by unilaterally canceling its challenge program, leaving the city no available remedy outside the courts. Additionally, the complaint says the Bureau also refused to review any evidence of an undercount provided by the city or to share how it reached its estimate – decisions that will cost the City millions of dollars in federal funds.

The City’s complaint focuses specifically on the Census Bureau’s 2021 estimate, which is based upon the 2020 decennial census that the City also has been challenging.  The newer 2021 estimate, released in May of this year, showed an additional loss of more than 7,000 more residents, despite a growing housing crunch in the city.  

“The Census Bureau used a formula to estimate Detroit’s population that showed the city losing more than 7,000 residents from just one year prior,” said Mayor Duggan. “Any formula claiming the city is still losing population defies facts and common sense, given the thousands of newly constructed and renovated housing units in the city, as well as increases in residential utility connections. Activity like this does not happen when more people are leaving the city than moving in.” 

To be able to fully and effectively understand how the Census Bureau determined its population estimate, the City is asking the court to compel the Bureau to share its formula, which the Mayor says will reveal its failings.

Utility records show population increase

Contrary to the Census Bureau’s estimate, evidence compiled by the City—including U.S. Postal Service delivery records, DTE Energy residential account data, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department records, and Detroit Land Bank Authority occupancy data—conservatively shows that Detroit gained tens of thousands of residents between the 2020 Census and the 2021 estimate.  So, while one federal agency claims that Detroit lost population, another is delivering mail to more addresses, DTE is providing power to more Detroiters, and DWSD is servicing more accounts. The Bureau refuses to consider this evidence.

Census Bureau violating its own rules

The Census Bureau has an administrative procedure to allow cities to challenge errors in the annual population estimates. But without notice, the Bureau simply announced on its website that the challenge program is cancelled for 2022 and would not resume until 2023. When the City requested the calculations underlying the 2021 estimate (step one in the challenge process), it was denied within hours, leaving Detroit unable to administratively fix the 2021 undercount.

In its lawsuit, the City explains that the Census Bureau violated federal administrative law by failing to comply with its own official rule that allows challenges to annual estimates and effectively adopting an “unofficial” rule without public input suspending the challenge program until 2023.

“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 Detroit’s Corporation Counsel, Conrad Mallett.

Bureau has acknowledged undercount of Blacks & Hispanics nationally

The US Census Bureau has publicly acknowledged that the 2020 Census undercounted the nation’s Black population by 3.30% and the Hispanic population by 4.99%. In Detroit, with a combined Black and Hispanic population of over 84%, that amounts to an undercount of over 20,000 Detroiters. Yet in its 2021 estimate of the City’s population released in May 2022, rather than fix this admitted error, the Bureau reduced the population by an additional 7,150 people.

"Census undercounts have alarming real-world consequences that deprive cities like Detroit of their fair and intended share of critical funding for schools, hospitals, affordable housing, and more," said U.S. Rep. Brenda L. Lawrence (MI-14).  "If the census is not accurate, then the annual population numbers that guide hundreds of billions of dollars in federal aid to communities and families are not accurate either,” Rep. Lawrence added. “Cities must have a meaningful way to challenge their annual estimates. That is why as Vice-Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, I successfully advanced language related to the Census Bureau’s funding bill for the upcoming fiscal year that directs the bureau to expand the scope of the Population Estimates Challenge Program so that cities across the country have a real chance to improve the accuracy of their annual numbers. I thank Mayor Duggan for his leadership and efforts to find a remedy to the undercount. We are Detroit and we do not sit on the sidelines. We will stand up and fight.”