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2020 Census Challenges, Reviews Net Population Gains for Tennessee Municipalities

University of Tennessee partners aid a dozen local governments in getting corrected decennial population counts.

A statewide count of Tennessee residents occurs just once every 10 years. So, when there are errors, a community may not receive its share of state and federal funds that are disbursed based on population for the next decade.

Fortunately, the U.S. Census Bureau offers a means to correct some errors, and this decade 17 Tennessee communities won challenges or reviews which increased their population reported in the 2020 Census.

This included the agency’s traditional “challenge” program that is aimed at correcting technical issues such as inaccurate corporate boundaries and population reported in the wrong jurisdiction. And this decade’s postcensal reviews were expanded to include a new program that corrected miscounted group-living facilities impacted by closures related to COVID-19.

Getting up to speed with the intricacies of those Census Bureau review programs and preparing the required documentation can be daunting for some smaller communities. That led the Tennessee State Data Center (TNSDC), housed at the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research, and the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) at the University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service, to partner in submitting cases for a dozen cities and towns.

The two groups worked together to engage communities that were identified as potentially having challenges and to work with officials in those cities and towns to file the reviews with the Census Bureau.

“We wanted to work with MTAS because their consultants are trusted by cities and towns across the state,” said Tim Kuhn, TNSDC Director. “Their connections and expertise made the process of gathering the required evidence and connecting with elected officials much easier than going at it alone.”

Ten Municipalities Prevail in 2020 Census Challenges

A total of 10 Tennessee cities and towns filed challenges, with most arising because the limits of the incorporated areas reported in the decennial census did not match the community’s adopted limits as of January 1, 2020.

The City of Cleveland filed the state’s first challenge early in 2022. Their corrections eventually netted a 423-person increase after numerous boundary tweaks were made.

That was followed by two West Tennessee communities, whose challenges earned the state’s largest revisions. Memphis’s big gain (+3,816 people) was primarily the result of an earlier annexation in the Southwind-Windyke area that was never added to the Census Bureau’s boundary files. Whiteville’s 1,958-person increase came because a prison’s population was incorrectly reported as being outside the town boundary.

The balance of the challenge cases came from the joint TNSDC and MTAS effort and was mainly focused on small municipalities whose boundaries were not current in the census. The challenge process included submitting ordinances, maps and lists of the affected addresses,  which the Census Bureau then used to reconcile the counts.

Though many of the corrections were small, the revenue changes can be impactful. The State of Tennessee shared an estimated $170 per resident in 2023, making a population increase of a few hundred people worth tens of thousands of dollars each year and hundreds of thousands of dollars over the decade.

Table 1: 2020 Census Challenge Results Filed Under the U.S. Census Bureau 2020 Count Question Resolution Program
Municipality Original Count Revised Count Change
Cleveland 47,356 47,779 423
Estill Springs 2,267 2,709 442
Huntsville 1,270 1,644 374
Jamestown 1,935 2,025 90
Kenton 1,205 1,273 68
Memphis* 633,104 636,920 3,816
Rockford 822 849 27
Spring Hill 50,005 50,321 316
Westmoreland 2,718 2,811 93
Whiteville 2,606 4,564 1,958

*The City of Memphis filed separate challenges related to housing units (-3 people) and a boundary discrepancy (+3,819). The combined result of both cases is shown.

The Census Bureau’s 2020 Census data products are not revised to reflect the new tally, but the counts will eventually be reflected in the agency’s errata document. That means communities seeking population-based grants and funding should be sure that revised counts are being used.

Group Quarter Reviews Correct Campus and Jail Counts

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted a number of 2020 Census operations. However, one of the more difficult challenges arose when group quarters – such as college dormitories, nursing homes, and correctional facilities – were either closed or imposed access restrictions.

To make matters more challenging, the residents of some facilities were displaced. Nearly all Tennessee campuses dismissed students in mid-March, closing on-campus housing and pivoting to online learning. That led the Census Bureau to expand its long-standing challenge program to include a one-time review of these types of group-living arrangements. This review identified facilities whose population counts may have been impacted by facility closures or access limitations instituted in response to the pandemic.

TNSDC coordinated this review on the state’s behalf and submitted evidence that two college campuses and five county jails were undercounted or excluded from the census totals. Five cases were approved.

Two of the largest corrections were found at campuses in southeast part of the state. The University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, dorms were estimated to be undercounted by nearly 1,200 students, and Bryan College in Dayton was underreported by 352 students.

Table 2:   Approved 2020 Post Census Group Quarters Review Cases in Tennessee
Municipality Facility Estimated Undercount
City of Chattanooga UTC Campus 1,180
City of Kingston Roane County Jail 143
City of Savannah Hardin County Jail 147
City of Sevierville Sevier County Jail Annex 147
City of Dayton Bryan College 352

These five Post Census Group Quarter Reviews are not published as errata but will be incorporated into Population Estimates in 2025 and other downstream data products such as the American Community Survey.

What’s Next

Official determination letters have been circulated to all participating communities. A complete 2020 Census errata document for the state is expected to be available in February 2024. It will provide additional detail about the specific areas that were corrected through the challenge process.

As soon as that is available, the revised counts will be accepted by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development for inclusion in the annual report of Certified Population of Tennessee Incorporated Municipalities and Counties.