PITTSFIELD — There are populations that Census 2020 identifies as hard-to-count. We know that many of them will not participate in the upcoming census for a host of reasons — many are simply not able to complete the form, or are unaware. This is why the onus is on us to help our friends, neighbors, and community members get counted.
Nearly 15 percent of the people in the Berkshires have a physical or intellectual disability. To support this population with services, tens of millions of dollars — more likely hundreds of millions — come from outside the area and flows through the Western Mass.economy. In many ways the economy depends on this money, and we know that the agencies in the Berkshires who provide these services will work hard to ensure the people they serve are counted in the 2020 Census.
But there is a large number of people with disabilities throughout Western Mass. who will likely not be counted because we don't know where they are. This is why the Census Bureau calls people with disabilities a "hard-to-count" population. Undercounting the disability population — any population — impacts the Berkshires beyond the issue of political clout. It has a direct effect on the funds allocated for our region and the policy decisions made at the federal and state levels. This includes roads, schools, law enforcement, the courts, jobs programs — the list goes on.
Berkshire County Arc's budget last year totaled $37 million. That's $37 million from outside the community infused into the region's economy. That's not including the personal money spent by the 1,000 individuals the agency serves. Together this money fuels every level of the Berkshire economy, from restaurants, food markets, health care and entertainment to housing upkeep like plumbing, electrical, carpentry, landscaping, roofing, plowing, etc. It's worth noting that BCArc's 800 employees also live in Western Mass, and for the most part, spend their salaries here.
The Census count plays a large role in determining policy decisions at the federal level. This goes for programs that serve to protect and advocate for the civil and political rights of people with disabilities. There are healthcare and housing issues, and employment programs, to name a few, that are driven at the federal level. BCArc, for example, manages the employment of more than 120 people with disabilities who work at The Ponds at Fox Hollow, BlueQ, Jiminy Peak, Kelly's Package Store, the Big Y, and dozens more places. That number is much larger when adding all the other providers in the region who offer similar services. What happens in the Census will affect individuals and employers in the county.
Massachusetts is considered one of the most progressive and supportive states for people with disabilities, and Western Massachusetts specifically enjoys the fervent support of its elected champions: Sen. Adam Hinds, Rep. Paul Mark, Rep. John Barrett, Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, Mayor Linda Tyer, and Mayor Tom Bernard. Despite this support, and a strong network of service providers, we know there is an invisible population that we never reach.
Given the Berkshires sparse population and rural layout, our lack of mass transit, and lack of universal internet, it's unlikely we will capture everyone in the Berkshires for the upcoming census. Yes, the onus should be on each individual to complete the census. But we know that approach won't yield the best results. The onus is on all of us, the entire community, if we want to deliver an accurate count of its population. We must all do our part to reach our own communities to make sure everyone gets counted. Because it's the communities that will benefit — or suffer — from the results, as well as the individuals.
Kenneth W. Singer is president & CEO, Berkshire County Arc.