DETROIT (AP) — When the U.S. Census Bureau starts counting people next year in Detroit, obstacles are bound to arise: The city has tens of thousands of vacant houses, sparse internet access and high poverty — factors that will make it the toughest community to tally.
Other Rust Belt towns that have lost population and cities in the Sun Belt with large numbers of immigrants and transplants will pose similar challenges in the nationwide headcount, an Associated Press analysis of government data found.
Nationwide, about a quarter of the population lives in hard-to-count neighborhoods, including a majority of people in Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Memphis, Tennessee, and Fresno, California.
Obtaining an accurate count is critical because the census determines the allocation of $1.5 trillion in federal spending and decides which states gain or lose congressional seats.
"There is nothing more important, no higher priority than reaching the hard to count," Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham told lawmakers this summer.
Detroit's recent resurgence has led to refurbished downtown buildings, new boutique hotels and an invigorated arts community. But the renaissance has done little for residents who live in persistent poverty and harbor lingering mistrust after decades of racial upheaval. The many empty homes are relics of the mass exodus that began in the 1950s and sent Detroit's population plummeting from about 1.8 million to 670,000.
About 86% of Detroit's population lives in hard-to-count neighborhoods, by far the largest proportion of any major U.S. city, the AP analysis found.
Annette Brock, who lives northeast of downtown, said some residents see no connection between answering questions from the government and improving their lives.
"Everybody else outside of us gets help before we do," Brock said. "I don't blame nobody if they don't want to participate, or if they don't want to help, or if they don't want to say nothing no more. They're tired of speaking their mind."
Nationwide, the Census Bureau predicts a 60.5% response rate.
About 70% of Detroit residents turned in their 2000 Census forms. That figure fell to 64% a decade later, when the national rate was 74%.
In 2010, 220,000 Detroit residents were living in households that did not fill out questionnaires, costing the city $2,000 to $5,000 annually for every uncounted person, said Victoria Kovari, executive director of Detroit's 2020 Census Campaign.
To get those numbers back up, city census teams have knocked on nearly 130,000 doors in neighborhoods that were undercounted in the last census and spoken with more than 26,000 people. But Kovari is still concerned.
For the first time, the Census Bureau would like respondents to answer questions online, but the agency estimates that 30% of Detroit households lack regular connection to the internet, roughly double the national percentage.
The Census Bureau sends workers to homes that don't respond. In Detroit, that means knocking on doors of vacant houses and houses where residents may not answer.
Almost 80% of Detroit is African American, and observers "know we are going to have an undercount among the black population," said Diana Elliott, an Urban Institute researcher who co-wrote a report this summer that estimated that 900,000 to 4 million people could be missed.
"That puts Detroit at greater risk just because of the demographics," Elliott said.
Researchers have learned that Latinos, African Americans, non-English-speaking immigrants and children under 5 are the hardest to count, along with tribal members, nontraditional families and people with informal living arrangements.