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How many people moved to the Berkshires during the coronavirus pandemic? And how did the timing of the crisis impact the census? Those answers aren't easy, and while we do know a few things about population changes in the Berkshires, we need to know more.

How many people are in the Berkshires?

It’s a simple question for which the answers aren’t particularly satisfactory. Recent reporting by The Eagle delves into the data to tell what part of the story is visible from the surface — and highlight what’s left unknown by current counting methods.

Based on what we do know, there’s arguably a case for some optimism on needed growth. Last year’s census showed Berkshire County, which has been losing 3 to 4 percent of its population per decade since the 1970s, losing considerably fewer residents than expected between the 2010 and 2020 federal tallies. That the Berkshires might be slowing the bleeding of population loss is good, but U.S. Post Service data suggests something even better: The county is not only losing fewer people but might actually be gaining more as well. From March 2020 to July of this year, change-of-address requests into the Berkshires increased while change-of-address requests leaving the county for elsewhere dropped compared to the same time period a year prior. Over a little more than a year, those numbers show a net gain of nearly 4,000 movers in Berkshire County, which might mean an even higher number of people, since that figure can refer to individuals or households.

These numbers all read as positive, though they come with a big caveat: The coronavirus introduces a considerable dose of uncertainty into the equation. It’s still unclear just how much a federal census year concurring with the onset of a deadly viral pandemic impacted the count. And given the noticeable trend of second-home owners and others decamping to the Berkshires when COVID-19 first hit hard in densely populated urban centers, it’s also a bit of a guessing game as to how many of those movers captured by change-of-address data are going to stay long-term.

For the Berkshires, the pandemic just made the fuzzy math of population tabulation even fuzzier. The novel coronavirus is relatively new, but the prevalence of second-home owners in the Berkshires — in some towns they make up half or more of the households — has long thrown a wrench into getting a simple answer to the question of how many people do these communities and this county support. That means traditional counting methods and definitions like “permanent” or “full-time” residents often don’t quite capture the impact and stress on important infrastructure in the Berkshires: hospitals, schools, public safety, roads and bridges, just to name a few.

Population trends — and the lingering questions about them — also carry political consequences, especially for a region like ours that often feels overlooked by leaders on the other end of the commonwealth. Many important state aid formulas use population to determine regional distribution of resources. While it’s promising that the census suggests a slowdown in Berkshire population loss, it also showed growth elsewhere in the state, meaning that congressional district redrawing will likely reduce Berkshire voters’ proportional influence. That process is informed by census data — not by the USPS data that implies there’s now actually more people living here. We desperately need a better grasp on what that really means for Berkshire population. If it’s growing in a way that was not fully captured by a census uniquely challenged by COVID, we need to get our arms around that reality. And if there’s unaccounted growth that actually mirrors or proportionally surpasses other regions in the state, it could mean a double whammy for Berkshire representation on Beacon Hill and in Congress.

COVID underscored what was already clear before: We need a better method of accounting for just how many people are in our fair county. If the people of the Berkshires aren’t properly counted, they can’t be properly served — and it definitely seems like we are not being properly counted.