Ask ELi: Will the Coronavirus Change the Census Count in East Lansing? UPDATED

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Wednesday, March 18, 2020, 2:50 pm
By: 
Chris Gray and Alice Dreger

Above: Private student housing on the north side of Grand River Avenue, and campus student housing on the south, in a photo by Raymond Holt.

UPDATE, March 18: Today, MSU advised all students that they should be counted where they normally live while actively in school at MSU. The Census Bureau has advised that "in most cases students living away from home at school should be counted at school, even if they are temporarily elsewhere due to the COVID-19 pandemic." Whether some, most, or all are counted locally or in the places where they are now living in response to the pandemic remains to be seen.

The following report was originally published on March 17:

Reader question: Could the City of East Lansing’s census count be radically reduced by MSU’s decision to suspend in-person classes through the end of the semester because of the coronavirus? What impact might this have on the City in terms of federal funding, political districting, and other issues?

Answer: Responses to the coronavirus could indeed have a significant impact on East Lansing’s census count, as tens of thousands of students return home and are potentially counted in their hometowns instead of in East Lansing.

Before COVID-19 hit, the hope here had been to push East Lansing’s population count over 50,000 in this census.

Achieving that threshold means more federal funding being available to East Lansing, and it also has implications for political districting.

The official population of East Lansing peaked in 1980 at 51,392 before falling to 50,677 in 1990. It fell further to 46,555 in 2000, before growing again to 48,598 in 2010.

The census count is set to happen on April 1. The expectation was that MSU students would be counted here — with students living on-campus counted in a large block data set provided by the university to the Census.

For the first time in history, Michigan State University and other universities are providing the U.S. Census with an actual count of individuals living in its on-campus housing, rather than rely on students to return the forms.

“This is the first time in history that the federal government is allowing that at universities,” said East Lansing Council Member Mark Meadows, who is the liaison to the city’s census subcommittee.

Above: Mark Meadows at the March 11 Council meeting in a photo by Gary Caldwell.

But now, MSU is urging all students to go home to their families if possible. The State News reported yesterday that on-campus students will be eligible for a $1,120 housing credit if they move out by April 12, incentivizing an exodus.

That could cause numbers here to be much lower than expected a month ago, negatively affecting East Lansing’s political representation and the allocation of federal and state resources to the community.

A week ago, Meadows, who has criticized earlier censuses for undercounting East Lansing, did not think the impact of the pandemic would be a significant one on the census. He expected most students to stick around in their off-campus rentals rather than returning home to their parents.

But this week, his view changed. He told ELi yesterday, “I am now very concerned … The new restrictions will probably result in more of an exodus.”

Meadows is of the view that “the count date should be moved. It is an artificially created date.” He’s particularly worried since he believes restrictions on public behavior will be extended in time.

MSU representatives have not responded to requests from ELi for estimates on how many students are staying and leaving.

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