Census 2020 poses new challenges for Berkshire County

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PITTSFIELD — Between lack of resources and a rise in hard-to-count populations, those behind the upcoming census say this could be one of the most challenging counts yet.

Berkshire County will go without a local census office for the first time ever — the closest will be in Worcester — and the county's only growing population is that of minorities, which are historically more difficult to count, said the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission's Mark Maloy, who is spearheading the county's Complete Count Committee.

An early version of the committee, about 50 municipal officials and staffers from community organizations, met for the first time last week to start brainstorming solutions to these challenges. Their goal: Make sure everyone gets counted.

Also compounding local challenges is the national question of how to count immigrants, especially those who are undocumented. President Donald Trump's administration is pushing to include citizenship status as a question on the 2020 census, stirring fears in the immigrant community. In previous counts, undocumented immigrants and those living with them could take comfort in knowing immigration officials were prioritizing the deportation of those committing new crimes, but Trump took away that comfort.

The legal battle to include citizenship presents a challenge to those implementing the census, Maloy said.

"I know a lot of the immigrants are very concerned about that," Maloy told the group.

And the decennial census is about much more than names on a clipboard. The nationwide count decides how much political representation and funding is allocated to a geographic area. Maloy said the census predicts the fate of about $689 billion in federal funds each year, about $280 million of which lands in Berkshire County. Some of the biggest census-based infusions include those for medical assistance programs, nutrition assistance programs and those for highway planning and construction. The commonwealth also uses census data to inform its distribution of Chapter 90 and Chapter 70 reimbursements for roads and schools, respectively.

"This is the only survey that counts everyone," Maloy told The Eagle. "It's constitutionally mandated to collect every single person."

Immigration issues aside, the county boasts many of the populations that typically present the most challenges for census workers, including rural residents, renters, low-income residents, minorities, female-led households and so-called "snow birds."

The group that gathered last week — the beginnings of what will be the county's Complete Count Committee — will help paid census staffers get into the county's nooks and crannies.

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"The mission of that committee is to bring the message to that hard-to-count population, Maloy said.

For all those deemed difficult to count, Maloy said, the best way to move forward is by successfully explaining why the census matters.

"That's the biggest thing that we can do," he said.

Some in the group suggested pairing census forms with kindergarten registration sessions. Alisa Costa, initiative director at Working Cities Pittsfield, said they should spend a day hopping on Berkshire Regional Transit Authority buses and asking people to fill out census forms while they ride.

She said it's crucial to figure out ways to reach low-income residents, those in far-flung areas, people of color and those who are disabled to ensure the county gets important resources it needs to help these populations.

"We're going to have to think creatively about how to engage those neighborhoods in different ways," she said.

Another challenge will be geographical. There aren't enough resources to fund a Berkshire County office, so the closest one will be in Worcester, complicating volunteers' ability to attend trainings and hindering the possibility of census staff getting hired out of Berkshire County.

To that point, Sheffield Select Board member Rene Wood suggested everyone write letters to Secretary of State William Galvin. She said the distance will be "a huge wall" between the group and its ability to do its job.

"That could be a huge barrier for people to participate locally," Costa agreed.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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