Blog: Kurt Metzger

A celebrity demographer if there ever was one, Kurt Metzger, director of the Detroit Area Community Indicators System, is the go-to-guru for the latest trends in population flow. This week, Kurt holds forth on the importance of immigration to the region's vitality, right-sizing the city, and neighborhoods of opportunity.

Post 4: The Census is Coming! The Census is Coming!

"Census" means a count of the population. The first Census was conducted in 1790 and the final count for the country was just under 4 million residents.  Cries of undercount were heard across the land.  Surely there were at least 4 million people!  Efforts have been made every 10 years hence to conduct an accurate count of every person1 residing in the United States.  All residents of the United States must be counted. This includes people of all ages, races, ethnic groups, citizens and non-citizens.

The U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 2) mandates this headcount to determine each state's Congressional representation. While this was the only reason for its creation (the counts being used to determine the taxes each State would pay the new government), the Census has taken on a wide variety of uses since then.  The numbers affect funding for states and local governments, determine governmental representation at all levels, influence business investment and help inform decision makers about how the community is changing - information that is crucial to many planning decisions, such as where to provide services for the elderly, where to build new roads and schools, or where to locate job training centers.

In the past, most households received a short-form questionnaire, while one household in six received a long form that contained additional questions and provided more detailed socioeconomic information about the population.  The 2010 Census will be a short-form only census and will count all residents living in the United States as well as ask for name, sex, age, date of birth, race, ethnicity, relationship and housing tenure – taking just minutes to complete. More detailed socioeconomic information is now collected through the American Community Survey (ACS), which provides current data every year, rather than once every 10 years2.
Census data directly affect how more than $400 billion per year in federal and state funding is allocated to communities for neighborhood improvements, public health, education, transportation and much more. That's more than $4 trillion over a 10-year period.

With the state and local news dominated by stories of DEFICIT and RECEIVERSHIP, we cannot afford to sit idly by and hope that the Census Bureau, through its employees and media buys, will provide Michigan and all its local governments with an accurate count.  As is the case with elections...


We are now a week into September, but only seven months away from Census Day - April 1, 2010.  There is a great deal to do to get the word out throughout our state and time is passing.  We are the only state to have experienced population loss each of the last three years, and all indicators point to 2008-09 adding a fourth year.  The Detroit region has also suffered losses this decade and the City of Detroit has continued, although at a much lower rate, its 50+ year out-migration flow. 

We (collectively), above all, must be ready and willing to do everything we can to make sure everyone is counted.  We must reach out to the disenfranchised - numbers that have grown exponentially due to unemployment, foreclosures, etc. - and let them know that their participation may result in increased funding for their support3.  We must help new immigrants understand that completing a census form will not harm them in any way.

The Census Bureau has created a variety of programs and materials for getting the word out.  On the government side, the Bureau encourages and supports the creation of Complete Count Committees.  The Census Education Project (my favorite) creates curriculum materials for students and teachers across the K-12 spectrum.  Promotional materials have been produced in a wide variety of languages for use in ethnic communities across the country.

The staff at the Detroit Area Community Information System (D-ACIS) is ready to assist in any way we can.  We recognize the importance of complete and accurate data and want to make sure that Detroit, the region, and all of Michigan do everything they can to make that happen.  We are an official partner with the Census Bureau, are providing technical support to the City of Detroit, serve on the advisory committee for the Michigan Nonprofit Association's 2010 Census Project, and "talk census" wherever and whenever we can.

Jack Lessenberry was kind enough to include his take on the Census in a June 24, 2009 Metro Times column.  Allow me to pull some quotes from that article (please excuse the fact that I am including his comments about me):

"It is crucially important — for a bunch of reasons — that everybody gets counted when it comes time for the U.S. Census. For one thing, scads of federal and state dollars depend on it, not to mention representation in Lansing and Washington. This is especially vital — and also hardest to achieve — in Detroit, where much of the population is immigrant, constantly moving, or a little leery of cooperating with anybody who looks like the law.

The man I know who understands this best is Detroit's Great Demographer, Kurt Metzger, who is now director of the Detroit Area Community Information System. (He previously spent years doing population studies for the U.S. Census, Wayne State University and the United Way.)

He is a trifle concerned that the city isn't moving quickly enough to gear up for Count Day, which is April 1, 2010. Metzger noted that while the Census Bureau is already starting outreach activities to get people informed and ready, the city needs to get going too. "An inaccurate census will only hurt the city and the region's ability to go forward.  There are no do-overs, and whining about an undercount will not change the results," he said, adding that the best way to avoid this is to make sure people get what's at stake. 

To take liberties with a tag line for Detroit Public Schools, 'I get you?' "

The history of the census shows that though every person was to be "counted," not everyone always counted equally.
2 Results from the 2008 American Community Survey will be released on September 22.  This release will cover all states, as well as counties and communities with populations of 65,000 or more.

3 The Michigan Nonprofit Association has launched a targeted effort to bring nonprofits to the table to understand the critical role they play in reaching their clients and constituents.