Vulnerable families have most to lose in undercount

March 8, 2010

Karen Holcomb-Merrill

I’ve seen the billboards, heard the public service announcements and have intellectually understood the importance of the upcoming census, but it wasn’t until I started to delve into the Michigan numbers that I really got it.  (See Hardest to Count, Most to Lose.)

Some of our most vulnerable populations here in Michigan really do stand to lose the most if they are not counted in the census. And ironically enough, they are the ones who are hardest to count.

Past experience shows that minorities, children, low-income folks and the unemployed are the most likely to be missed in the census count. And, if you are a child of color, you have the poorest chance of being counted.

There are a variety of reasons for this. These populations are more likely to move around, to live with others and to live in temporary housing. Kids living in larger households or with grandparents are also more likely to be overlooked. Those with lower education and literacy levels may have trouble understanding the census form. Some are fearful of the government, especially in this post 9-11 era.

Whatever the reason, substantial numbers of people here in Michigan will not be counted in the upcoming census. I recently learned that the U.S. Census Bureau actually designates certain areas as “hard to count” areas.

Apparently over 1.2 million people in our state live in hard to count areas. That’s just over 12 percent of the population. When you look at the hard to count areas in Michigan by race, the disparities are alarming. Among whites, 5.4 percent are in hard to count areas. In stark contrast, over 48 percent, almost half, of African Americans are in hard to count areas. And for Hispanics, it’s over 30 percent. No wonder minorities are missed at such a high rate, compared with whites.

So what’s really at risk here in Michigan? A look at the top 10 federal services and programs that use census data shows that, with the exception of highway planning and construction, they target low-income and vulnerable populations, including children and minorities. The big one, of course, is Medicaid, which provides health care for one in six people in our state. Other services include unemployment insurance, Head Start, and the State Children’s Insurance Program.

Arguably the need has never been greater here in Michigan. There is much at risk if people are not counted and if funding is not sufficient to meet the needs going forward, especiallyfor vulnerable families and children.

— Karen Holcomb-Merrill