Stat-Check: Detroit’s “Slowing Population Loss”

Data Driven Detroit (D3) has the opportunity to review many Census releases during their initial embargo period. This allows us to develop analyses prior to release, which we can use to further our mission of providing communities with better data for better decisions. It also prepares us for questions that come directly from the press.

Such was the case with last week’s release of 2011 sub-county (city, village, and township) population estimates. During our analysis it became clear that the Census Bureau had suspended its standard estimate methodology and, rather than developing independent estimates for sub-county areas, had distributed county-level 2010 – 2011 estimates of population change uniformly across all sub-county areas. This meant that all 43 communities in Wayne County, Michigan, including Detroit, were estimated to have lost one percent of their populations. If anyone can believe such an occurrence, I have a great deal of swamp land that I am willing to let go real cheap. A review of the other 82 counties in the state of Michigan revealed that county-level population change was assumed for all of their respective sub-communities.

Based on this discovery, Data Driven Detroit’s analysis of the 2011 subcounty estimates is that they were meaningless and that no trends could be assessed.

Needless to say I was both shocked and disappointed when Destination Detroit hoped to develop a great story for the city of Detroit based on a lead story from MSNBC. The heading of that story reads “Detroit Population Loss Slows as Cities Nationwide Boom.”

Allow me to quote from the story:

For the first time in a century, most of America’s largest cities are growing at a faster rate than their surrounding suburbs, MSNBC reports.

MSNBC said Detroit saw much smaller losses last year, a sign that its 25 percent decline over the past decade has bottomed out. No further details were immediately available.

The reason for the city surge? Young adults seeking a foothold in the weak job market are shunning home-buying and stay put in urban centers.

New 2011 census estimates released Thursday highlight the dramatic switch.

Driving the resurgence are young adults, who are delaying careers, marriage and having children amid persistently high unemployment. Burdened with college debt or toiling in temporary, lower-wage positions, they are spurning homeownership in the suburbs for shorter-term, no-strings-attached apartment living, public transit and proximity to potential jobs in larger cities.

And this was not all! Here are more headlines:

There are lots more just like those. Guess what… Pretty much all of those stories are wrong, or at the very least baseless when you really look at the data.

While we know that young adults are driving the rebirth of central cities, these numbers do not support this trend. Was there any new growth in cities? There are no data in any of this to tell us one way or another. While we all want to believe the Detroit headline, I am sorry to say there is no support for the claim.

I call these data clarifications “Objective Truths.” Data Driven Detroit is committed to calling out the media and others when their use of data goes beyond the actual facts. In this case we also feel that the Census Bureau is to blame for this misinterpretation. The press release should have come with WARNING labels that clearly told users that the methodology made this year’s numbers virtually worthless.