A man examines information about the census on Oct. 28, 2019 at Journey House in Milwaukee. (Sue Vilet / Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service)
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The city of Milwaukee on Tuesday joined the ranks of other major cities that are challenging their 2020 census figures, claiming that the once-a-decade U.S. head count which determines political power and federal funding undercounted the city’s true population by 16,500 people.

The official count left Milwaukee with its lowest population since 1930.

“Much has been made over the previous two years of the city of Milwaukee census population totals showing a declining population,” Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said at a news conference on Tuesday. “By submitting this formal challenge with the United States Census Bureau, we are here to set the record straight.”

Milwaukee joins Boston, Austin, Detroit and Memphis among the largest U.S. cities that are challenging their 2020 census results for undercounting their populations, especially university students, the foreign-born and inmates at correctional facilities. Several dozen smaller cities, towns and villages also have filed challenges. Milwaukee officials argued that the census primarily undercounted communities of color, specifically in the Black and Hispanic populations, based on the Census Bureau’s own post-count analysis. Officials also said that about 700 people held in the Milwaukee County Jail downtown were instead counted as being in custody at the Milwaukee County House of Correction in nearby Franklin.

Nothing can be done to change how congressional seats were divided among the states, nor to alter data that is used to redraw political districts. However, any changes stemming from a review of the group quarters count may be used for future population estimates and surveys that help distribute federal resources.

Those federal resources are particularly critical as the city faces increasingly difficult budgets, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Johnson said.

The census results were released in August 2021 and found that Milwaukee’s population had dropped to 577,222, reflecting an exodus of more than 17,000 people since 2010.

The census undercounted the total housing units by 2,394 and likely overcounted vacant units by about 4,055 for a total of about 15,800 people, Johnson wrote in a five-page letter to U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Santos.

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