I was moaning about this to a friend the other day, and he said there was something I could do for Michigan if I moved fast. He recommended I try to make someone pregnant in the next week or so. He explained that the state needed babies no later than March.
That suggestion struck me as a trifle … bizarre. “No, really, I am serious,” he said. “In fact, you should get fertility drugs and try for a multiple birth.” His logic puzzled me.
But he explained: Michigan needs people. We are losing not only the economic wars, but the demographic ones.
Finally I got it: The Census. Every ten years, the federal government counts us. That is to say, they make a major effort to count us, sending out forms and sending enumerators to count those who don’t send them back.
There are people who live on relatives’ couches or in alleys, and they try to find and count them too.
That isn’t always easy. But it is necessary, and here’s why. First of all, so much is determined by how many people we have.
Federal and state aid, for one thing. Generally speaking, the more people you have, the more you get. That’s true for cities as well as states. But political clout is also determined by the census.
The U.S. House of Representatives has 435 members. Every state gets one to start. The rest are apportioned on the basis of population. Every ten years, they add up the figures and pull out the calculator and go to work. The faster-growing states get more congressmen. Those growing slower lose them.
Michigan gained big throughout the first half of the twentieth century, as the auto industry boomed. We gained clout in Congress, adding our final seat after the 1960 census. That gave us 19 seats in the house. Since then, however, the tide has been flowing in the other direction. We’ve lost four seats in Congress since 1970, the equivalent of Kansas’s entire delegation. My friend Kurt Metzger, a former census official who now runs the Detroit Area Community Information System, says we will lose another next year.
To minimize the loss, we have to try to make sure everyone is counted. This is not normally a big problem in better-off, single family home places like Chelsea or Ada.
But it becomes much harder when you are dealing with new immigrants, and poor and undereducated people who may be frightened of any contact with the government.
We know that every census misses people. That’s why it is so important that government at all levels mobilize to try to reassure people, educate them, and finally find them next April 1.
“There are no do-overs,” Metzger told me last week. “Whining about an undercount won’t change the results.”
He is worried that we aren’t doing enough to get ready for this, especially in the City of Detroit, which needs an accurate count most of all. So Mayor Bing …are you listening?