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February 2018

Measuring Hard to Count Populations

by Dom Korzecke

It shouldn’t be surprising that the Census Bureau does not perform with 100 percent accuracy when carrying out its official Census every 10 years. Some people are difficult to reach, and others may decide not to fill out the form. If the number of people who do not fill out the form is small and randomly distributed this wouldn’t be a large problem, however, if this population is not random then there is a significant risk that some areas will be disproportionately undercounted. Throughout the history of performing Census counts, researchers have learned a lot of information about populations that are typically undercounted, known as Hard to Count Populations (HTC).

Which Groups are Traditionally Hard to Count?

Researchers at the Census Bureau have identified a list of populations that are traditionally harder to count than others. These include:

  • Minorities (especially African Americans)
  • People in poverty
  • People who are homeless or living in non-traditional homes
  • Immigrants (especially illegal)
  • People who primarily speak a different language than English
  • Youth

Additionally, many of these populations exhibit a higher than average distrust or fear of the government due to perceived inequalities in treatment, and therefore make a conscious effort not to fill out a Census form. For example some immigrants may believe the information collected by government agencies may be used in deportation efforts or had adverse experience with government in their home country, or people in minority groups may distrust government agencies due to perceptions that other government units such as police are unjust.

The HTC Score The Planning Database’s Low Response Score (LRS)

The Census publishes the Planning Database annually by assembling a number of indicators from the Census, American Community Survey, and operational data (like the Census Mail Return Rate). These are used to calculate a Low Response Score, which measures the perceived difficulty of counting both block groups and tract levels based on mailed-in self-response. There are 25 LRS predictor variables, with percentage of renters in a block group, percentage of people aged 18-24, and percentage of households headed by unmarried females as the highest predictors of low response rates.

The Low Response Score is negatively associated with the 2010 Census Mail Return Rate. These data can be used to guide the Census Bureau’s activity leading up to Census 2020 to ensure outreach is targeted in areas with high levels of hard to count populations. However, the current Planning Database’s LRS does not account for the use of Internet as the primary mode of self-response in Census 2020. This means that different segments of the population will respond in various ways. Consequently, the LRS is score not as accurate as it could be and characterizes some geographic areas as harder to count than they really are.

In the past, the Census Bureau has used a database that contains a “HTC score” that operates in the same way as the LRS by indicating the perceived difficulty of counting Census tracts. The scores are assigned using the last available Census and are merely estimates and therefore cannot be used to determine actual levels of undercount.

The Census Project also created an interactive map of hard-to-count tracts and can be zoomed into specific Congressional and state legislative districts. It includes data such as the 2010 Census Mail Return Rate and demographic information about groups that are generally hard to count, such as racial and ethnic minorities, persons living in multi-family housing units, and low-income populations.

Why Worry About Hard to Count Populations?

There are many reasons why it is important to make sure that the Census gets an accurate count. The Census plays a major role on a federal, state, and local level.


The original justification for the Census in the U.S. constitution is to fairly allocate the 435 seats in the House of Representatives according to population. This means that if a state’s Census count drops, or doesn’t rise as fast as other states they could have less representation in Washington. This was the case in the 2010 Census where Michigan was the only state to have a population loss in the Census, and one of the few states to lose seats in the House.

In addition to representation at the federal level, the state of Michigan also uses Census counts to draw its congressional districts, with the requirement that districts be roughly equal in population. This means that if an area of the state is undercounted by a large enough margin, they may receive less representation at the state level than they should.


The Census count affects more than $400 billion in the allocation of federal funds, a lot of which is directed at aiding populations in need. This can be particularly alarming because HTC populations are often those who could benefit most from receiving federal aid. If an area’s HTC populations are not well counted, they will be receiving a disproportionately low amount of aid, which could have lasting negative effects.

Census counts directly affect how states distribute funds on many fronts. Due to the complicated methods that governments use to allocate funds, it is difficult to put a dollar value on how much funding is lost with each decrease in population. However, many sources of funding are still strongly tied to relative population levels, so the issue remains pressing. A recent study at George Washington University finds Michigan receives about $1,400 per person counted in the US Census. Similarly, during the 2010 Census, Detroit’s population fell below the 750,000 mark which made it ineligible for special tax rates; this put the state in danger of losing significant funding. The Michigan legislature went on to lower the population threshold to 600,000, but saves like this may not always be an option.

How Detroit Stacks Up

Detroit has a large number of HTC populations relative to the rest of the country; this is due to its somewhat large population of minorities, poor, homeless and foreign language speakers. This makes the city vulnerable to potentially large disparities in funding or representation, which means increased and focused efforts would need to be made to count HTC populations in order to correct inequalities.


Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in Michigan

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a federally funded block grant.  States operate a variety of programs utilizing this funding, but they must fall under one of the four purposes of TANF:

  1. Provide assistance to needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes
  2. Reduce the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work and marriage
  3. Prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies
  4. Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families


As part of our work supporting the Hope Starts Here initiative, D3 did a national comparative analysis of TANF budgets in each state.  We looked specifically into programs and funds that can be used directly for early childhood development. While others have analyzed actual TANF programs for efficacy (for example, the Detroit Free Press found questionable uses of TANF dollars for private school scholarships), this analysis focuses specifically on the per capita spending of TANF dollars at the state level and the percentage of the total budget that certain categories represent.

The analysis is based on this table of TANF expenditures by categories most relevant to early childhood development.

With total 2015 spending at $1.3 billion, Michigan is fourth in total TANF expenditures, about 4% of the nationwide total. However, when adjusted for population, Michigan falls to number 10 at $131 per capita. Washington D.C. spends the most per capita at $393 and Idaho the least at $21.  The national average is $91.

“Basic assistance” accounts for cash-type payments that help a family meet basic needs such as goods, clothing, shelter, utilities, etc.  This includes programs that supplement the relative foster care maintenance payments and foster care subsidies. In terms of basic assistance, Michigan is number 44 in spending as a percentage of total expenditures. The $149 million basic assistance budget is about 12% of the total budget. Nationally, about 27% of total TANF budgets are spent on these basic assistance programs.

In terms of early care and education, including child care subsidies and expansion of Head Start programs, Michigan is ranked number 22 in percent of total expenditures to early care ($224 million is about 17% of the budget). Nationally about 20% of total TANF expenditures are on early care and education. Three states spend no money on this section of TANF. In early care, expenditures are broken out into childcare assistance and education, where Michigan is ranked number 42 in percent of total spending for childcare assistance and number 8 in education (including Head Start programs).

Another category for young children in Michigan is services for children and youth, which focuses on supporting life-skill acquisition and educational attainment. In terms of spending on services for children and youth, which includes after-school programs, mentoring, and tutoring programs, Michigan is ranked number 1 in percentage of spending. Michigan spends 24% of its budget on these programs. Thirty states do not spend any money on it.

Michigan is ranked number 4 in program management expenditures. Michigan spends about $316 million on program management (24% of the budget). Nationally, about 11% of the TANF budget goes to program management. In Michigan, most of the program management expenditures go to assessments and service provision (20%) with the remaining 4% going to administrative costs.  Administrative costs are capped at 15% by federal law. Assessments and service provision includes costs associated with screening (including substance abuse), case planning/management, and social security disability or supplemental security income application services.

Total spending for Child Welfare Services in Michigan is currently ranked number 10 at about $42.7 million (3% of the overall TANF budget). 100% of the money spent on Child Welfare Services is allocated to Family Support, Family Preservation, and Reunification Services. Michigan does not apportion any money to adoption services or additional child welfare services.

Hopefully this analysis of TANF spending in Michigan can help provide context to the current policy discussions around early childhood development in the state and specifically in Detroit.  We look forward to continuing to support the Hope Starts Here initiative as it works to provide local children with the best start in life.