Third Thursday May

New census data shows the Berkshire County population growing more diverse, and a slower population loss than most had expected over the past decade. 

Over the past 10 years, the non-Hispanic white population in Berkshire County fell, while the region gained Black, Asian, Hispanic and multiracial residents.

Berkshire County still ranks among the whitest regions in Massachusetts, with slightly less than 85 percent of all residents identifying as non-Hispanic white, according to new census data. Also, the county recorded the largest population decline in the state over the past decade, a loss of about 2,000 residents, or 1.7 percent of the population.

But, people who have been studying the data for years, and pushing the county to become more inclusive of diversity, say the census results come as good news.

The population loss is significantly below the decline of 5,000 to 10,000 residents local and federal predictions had shown, says Jonathan Butler, president and chief executive officer at 1Berkshire.

“There was a decline, but it was not as dramatic as we feared,” Butler said. “I think when you look at this data, you look at somewhat of a plateau in our population decline, and a more diverse audience attracted to the Berkshires and wanting to live here. … That represents something encouraging.”

Over the past decade, the county’s Hispanic population rose by 56 percent, from 4,530 to 7,064. That means Hispanic residents now make up about 5.5 percent of the county population, up from 3.5 percent a decade ago.

The non-Hispanic Black and Asian populations in the Berkshires also shot up, 22 and 25 percent, respectively, though both groups remain relatively small fractions of the county’s population. The region gained about 700 Black residents and 600 Asian residents, according to the census.

The American Indian and Alaska Native population, including those who identify as Hispanic, increased slightly, while the county’s tiny Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population dropped.

Meanwhile, the non-Hispanic white population declined by nearly 10,000 — it was a loss of more than 8 percent — though demographers caution that the decrease includes a shift toward multiracial identification fueled by changes in the census itself.

The number of people who identify with two or more races more than doubled in the Berkshires, and the county registered a similar increase in people identifying with “some other race.”

Imperfect data

Analysts say the increase in the number of multiracial people in the country likely is caused by a variety of factors, including actual demographic shifts as well as changes in the census. That would mean some of the growth in the multiracial population in the Berkshires marks a real increase, while an unknown fraction marks a reclassification.

Rachel Marks, chief of the racial statistics branch at the Census Bureau, told The New York Times that changes to the form and the bureau’s processes contributed to the rise in the rate of people identifying as multiracial, but she did not quantify how much the changes impacted the final numbers.

Demographers and census experts also have cautioned that the process might have undercounted people of color. The coronavirus pandemic’s interruption of door knocking and former President Donald Trump’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the census could have decreased participation among historically undercounted groups.

In the Berkshires, data collection also likely missed a large portion of the pandemic’s relocation effect, as the census forms asked people to report where they lived April 1. Mark Maloy, with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, points out that many pandemic arrivals, temporary or permanent, would have been counted in other regions.

“Everyone from New York City who moved up here and decided to establish permanent residence here, that happened after April,” Maloy said. “The increase in home sales, all of that happened after this data. It may take years, even a decade, before we really know the impact of COVID on our population.”

Population plateau?

Berkshire County’s loss of 1.7 percent of its residents marked a much smaller downturn than in previous decades, when each census showed population declines of about 3 to 4 percent. Predictions from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission had estimated a much larger drop in population by 2020.

“Some people will look at the data and say, ‘We keep losing population,’” Butler said. “But, those of us close to data in the last decade can look at it from a very optimistic vantage point. The decline of our population seems to potentially be leveling off.”

Butler attributes the slowed population loss to many factors, likely including an increase in available jobs, especially compared with the years after the Great Recession, and higher quality of life in the Berkshires.

“We’ve seen a resurgence of Great Barrington, the revitalization of Pittsfield and North Adams, other communities coming back to life again,” he said. “The volume of things to do in the Berkshires is very different in 2021 than it was in 2004, and I’ve lived here through that time frame, so, I can speak to the shift in vibrancy.”

‘A lot of progress’

Berkshire County’s increases in diversity lagged behind the state: The county’s non-Hispanic white residents’ share of the population fell from 91 percent in 2010 to 85 percent in 2020, while across Massachusetts the same group fell from 76 to 68 percent of the population.

“Eastern Massachusetts is a lot more urban, with a lot more ethnic cultures, and more colleges pulling people in,” Maloy said. “We’ll always be behind the state. We’re more rural, and more rural areas tend to be more white.”

In the Berkshires, the decrease in the white population likely reflects the reality of the county’s demographics — an aging white population and increasing diversity among the younger population.

“Look at Pittsfield schools,” Maloy said. “The percent [of the student body] that is nonwhite is quite large. A lot of the older population, those who have died over the last 10 years, may have been white … while I think a lot of the births are increasing our diversity.”

Census age data and other demographic information have not been released yet.

Advocates also say that the numbers are a sign that more marginalized groups feel comfortable answering the census.

Michelle Lopez, executive director at the Berkshire Immigrant Center, says she thinks Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — it’s the U.S. immigration policy that went into effect since the previous census — helped many immigrants feel safe responding to the forms.

She says the work done by the Berkshire County Complete Count Committee, headed by Maloy, likely also helped increase response rates. The committee went door to door, dropped into English language classes and worked to raise confidence in the census, including letting people know they did not need to disclose their immigrant status.

Lopez also thinks the county has become an easier and more welcoming place for immigrants, with an abundance of available services, including free English language classes.

“I think a lot of this is immigrant family members being brought by immigrant family members here already,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘This is a safe place to live.’ That’s probably the word we hear the most from immigrants telling us why they chose to stay in the Berkshires.”

Butler suggested that employers have made progress in improving hiring practices to increase diversity, as well as being more welcoming and offering better training, all of which could help attract or keep people of color in the area.

“We definitely have a tremendous amount of work left to do, but I think there’s been a lot of progress in the last five years,” he said.

Francesca Paris can be reached at fparis@berkshireeagle.com and 413-447-7311, ext. 239.