By all reasonable measures, Newark has gotten more crowded in the last decade. The city has added nearly 1,000 apartment units since 2010, and in the same time, the University of Delaware has added 2,800 students to the campus.
Despite that, the 2020 Census data released last month shows a decrease in Newark’s population for only the second time since the Civil War. Because a wide range of federal funding is tied to population, the undercount could have lasting ramifications for Newark.
“We haven't had enough time to really dig into what the impacts are going to be, but it's going to be negative and it's going to last until we can get either a special census done or the next census,” City Manager Tom Coleman said.
The reason for the undercount traces back to the pandemic and a bit of unfortunate timing.
The census is designed to capture population data as of April 1, 2020. But just two weeks before that, the coronavirus hit Newark, and UD sent students home, leaving the student-centric areas of the city resembling a ghost town just in time for the decennial count.
Under census rules, people are counted wherever they spend 51 percent of the year, meaning that most UD students are typically counted here, not in their hometowns. UD officials submitted information for students living in dorms, but off-campus students needed to fill out the census themselves.
Students are a historically undercounted population, but the pandemic made an already difficult task nearly impossible. UD and state officials had planned an on-campus awareness campaign centered around Census Day, but by then, UD had already shut down.
“We had over 2,000 vacant apartments, and they were all in the student areas,” Coleman said. “The shortage wasn’t in on-campus housing; it was in off-campus housing.”
The census deadline was Sept. 30, 2020, and city and state officials mounted a last-minute awareness campaign – even organizing a small parade through student areas to promote the census. However, UD remained virtual last fall, and students didn’t return in full force until this fall.
“We were concerned this was going to happen,” Coleman said, referring to the undercount. “We were hopeful that it didn't, but I'm not surprised that it did, unfortunately.”
Newark is not alone in dealing with an undercount, he added.
“It's a problem across college towns,” he said.
According to the 2020 Census, Newark’s population is 30,601, a 2.7 percent decline from 2010, when the population was 31,454.
In 2019, the Census Bureau’s yearly population estimate for Newark was 33,515. Coleman said he expected the final number to be closer to 35,000.
Coleman said that as early as 2023, Newark can request a special census to get an updated population number. The city would have to pay for the special census, though Coleman believes the city would be able to pay for it using American Rescue Plan Act funding.
Until then, the city could see a decrease in federal and state funding. Nationwide, census data determines the distribution of more than $675 billion in federal funds to states, counties and towns.
Coleman said his hope is that, ultimately, a special census could actually work in Newark’s favor because it could count the students that were missed last year as well as include new development that wasn’t open in 2020.
“The upside is by 2023, The Grove will probably be open and occupied, the Rail Yard will be open and occupied and a number of other housing units,” Coleman said. “Maybe we wind up ahead in the long run, but we're going to be down for the next couple years.”
Statewide, Delaware’s population grew by more than 10 percent from 2010 to 2020 and now stands at 989,948.
Newark remains the state’s third-largest town, behind Wilmington and Dover. The gap between Dover and Newark grew, though, with the capital city’s population increasing 9 percent to 39,403.
Meanwhile, the fourth-largest town, Middletown, is gaining ground on Newark. Its population soared 23 percent to 23,192.