Iowa City population likely undercounted in census because of COVID-19 disruptions

City Manager Geoff Fruin said areas of the Iowa City that saw slow growth or population decline coincide with areas where students living off campus are traditionally housed.


Daniel McGregor-Huyer

RISE at Riverfront Crossing on Linn St is seen on October 26 2020.

Natalie Dunlap, Politics Editor

Iowa City has experienced strong population growth over the past decade, but the impact of COVID-19 during the 2020 census may have caused the population to be undercounted.

Iowa City City Manager Geoff Fruin said he suspected the census count was a few thousand off, since University of Iowa students were sent home because of COVID-19 when the census was conducted.

According to analysis from the Iowa Community Indicators Program, a prior estimate predicted a 2020 population of 86,481 in Iowa City. The actual 2020 census count for the city was 74,828. Iowa City grew 10.3 percent between 2010 and 2020, rather than the predicted 12.9 percent.

“College communities across the country were concerned about the timing of the census this year, and really just how the pandemic impacted our population,” Fruin said.

Data visualization by Lauren White/The Daily Iowan

The city manager said the areas of Iowa City that saw slow growth or population decline coincide with areas where students living off campus are traditionally housed.

“When it comes to our final count, we grew almost 7,000, which is really strong growth for a community of our size,” Fruin said. “That’s adding more people than we did in either of the previous two decades, but we do feel it was undercounted, and that our true population is probably a little bit higher than what the Census Bureau was able to capture, due to the challenges with the pandemic.”

Liesl Eathington, an Iowa Community Indicators program coordinator and research scientist at Iowa State University, said she noticed when looking at the census data that college communities were particularly affected by the pandemic during the census count.

“I would say that probably the biggest concern related to the COVID effects on the census are going to happen in places like Iowa City in Johnson County, Ames in Story County — so a lot of the places that have either a university, or other types of group quarters where people may have left their usual residence to go home, especially young people who moved home,” Eathington said.

Another population affected in the census by the pandemic were communities that are historically underrepresented in the count. Eathington said one of her colleagues spoke with residents in Storm Lake who were concerned that some of the minority groups who worked in a meat plant that was shut down may have left the region.

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“There might have been an undercount because those are typically harder to count groups, because they’re a little more reluctant to participate in the census, versus how many might have actually left the region,” Eathington said.

In an email to The Daily Iowan Hayley Bruce, UI assistant director of media relations, wrote that fewer than 100 students remained on campus housing at the beginning of April 2020, after the UI moved to virtual learning and closed most residence halls.

Eathington added that college communities were able to communicate their group quarters count, which includes dorms, by using administrative records and assistance from the universities. The bigger concern, however, is students living off campus may have still been undercounted, she said.

Some of the money that the city receives from state and federal governments is partially based on population counts, such as the gas tax from the state and federal community development block grant, Fruin said.

“It’s not a loss for the city in that we’re going to see dollars that we’re currently getting taken away, because we did show growth — we did show pretty robust growth at nearly 7,000,” Fruin said. “So we’ll actually see a boost in some of those revenue, and some of those funding sources. However, clearly, if we had a few more 1,000 onto our count, we would get an even bigger boost.”

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