A version of this post appeared in the May 3, 2108 Lansing State Journal

In a Nutshell

  • Besides counting people for apportioning representation in Congress, population count produced by census is used to allot federal and state funding
  • Michigan’s population has been growing slower than national average, so full count is important to maximize the state’s share of federal programs
  • Within Michigan, the population of individual communities will be used to allocate state funding and determine local government eligibility to levy certain taxes

The 2020 Census is now less than two years away. The U.S. Constitution calls for a head count every ten years. It is vital that federal, state, local government, and non-governmental actors all take action to ensure a full count of all people in Michigan, both legal and illegal residents.

Preparations for the count have received greater visibility in recent weeks with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s decision to add a citizenship status question to the 2020 Census. At this time of heightened awareness of immigrant deportations and uncertainty over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, this question raises concerns that undocumented aliens and those of questionable immigration status will be less inclined to participate, leading to a substantial undercount.

The aim is to count all people, regardless of their legal status, because legislative districts must be apportioned based on the number of people who live there.  The downside, as will be explained, is that more is at stake than representation in Congress.

The pending census portends a gloomy outcome for Michigan, because the state’s population has been growing much slower than the rest of the nation. While the national population is estimated to have grown by about six percent since 2010, Michigan’s growth is estimated to be less than one percent over that time. (Still better than the population loss experienced between 2000 and 2010.)

This suggests Michigan is likely to lose another seat in the House of Representatives when Congress is reapportioned following the 2020 census. Historically, undercounts have been less of a problem in Michigan than many other states because fewer immigrants come to Michigan than other states, but we would need an undercount of historic dimensions elsewhere to overcome the different growth rates for Michigan and the nation as a whole.

Distributing federal and state funding

The census will affect our share of federal funding. A number of federal programs use a population component to distribute funding to the states, including Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (otherwise known as food stamps), and highway planning and construction grants. The George Washington Institute of Public Policy reports that about 300 federal programs allocate over $800 billion a year based on census counts.

Within Michigan, the census will have varying repercussions. Although the statewide annual population growth rate from 2010 to 2016 has hovered around .08 percent, most has occurred in urban areas. These areas have had an annual population growth rate of about 0.11 percent, while rural areas have grown only 0.01 percent. This will create winners and losers for the distribution of state funding.

Like the federal government, Michigan uses population for the distribution of state funding to local governments. State law also contains a number of population parameters dictating the authority of local governments to raise revenue. Therefore, the ability of local governments to provide services and the quality of life in the local regions rely on a full count of the residents who benefit from those services.

Michigan has a long history of the state playing a strong role in levying taxes and sharing revenues with local governments. This helps to ensure a minimum level of services across the state and equalize the fiscal capacity of local governments. Under this approach, Michigan law incorporates population to distribute to local governments more than $1.1 billion of funding through state revenue sharing, another $1.2 billion for highway funding, more than $200 million for transit funding, and lesser amounts for court funding.

The state also has a number of programs that makes grants available to local governments if they fit within population restrictions, including funding for solid waste management, juvenile justice, and making funding available in times of emergencies.

Revenue-raising authority

Population is also used in state laws to authorize revenue-raising actions by local governments. Since 1908, Michigan’s Constitutions have contained provisions restricting the passage of local or special acts. This provision prevents the legislature from becoming entangled in detailed local matters to the detriment of dealing with matters of statewide significance and is consistent with the home rule provisions found elsewhere in the Constitutions. The legislature has found it possible to grant legal authority to perform certain activities to specific local governments without naming those governments, again by using population thresholds.

We have identified 19 state laws that grant to local governments that meet certain population criteria the authority to raise revenue through taxation, special assessments, or fees.

State laws have used population ranges to grant taxing enhanced authority to specific cities. Detroit qualifies to levy a utility users tax because of its population. Detroit, Grand Rapids, Highland Park, and Saginaw levy city income taxes at rates higher than those levied by other cities because of special provisions referring to cities with populations of various sizes. Special assessments for police and fire equipment and operations are authorized to townships, villages, and cities with less than 10,000 people.

Select counties gain the authority to impose fees for specific purposes and to levy taxes based on their populations. Counties of specific sizes also gain the authority to levy accommodations, rental car, and property taxes to fund stadia, convention facilities, and hospitals. Specific authority to levy fees relates to 9-1-1 emergency telephone service, marriage licenses, transcripts and public health records, operating under assumed or fictitious names.


The U.S. Census is far more than just a head count. On the national level, it will affect the state’s ability to draw down needed federal funding to serve some of the state’s greatest needs. On a state level, it will affect the distribution of billions of dollars to local governments. A full count in the census is in everyone’s best interest.


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