Local officials cite census' import for Great Barrington

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Town officials across the county are urging — no, begging — residents to fill out their 2020 census cards, since census data is tied to $675 billion in federal money, among other things.

"We need to make sure we're represented," said Town Planner Christopher Rembold, speaking at last week's Select Board meeting. "It's a really easy response process. Please, when you get the mailings ... go online that day and do the census for your household. Tell your neighbors."

Census mailings go out on March 12, he added. They can be completed online, by phone, on paper or through a visit with a census employee.

Rembold said a network that includes the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is canvassing all over the county to combat the nonresponse. Great Barrington's nonresponse rate is predicted at 21.5 percent, said Mark Sebastino, partnership specialist for the 2020 Census' New York Regional Office.

Rembold said such a rate for Great Barrington is "completely unacceptable."

Sebastino had come to explain how the census is used to better understand U.S. populations, analyze and create useful data. It determines the number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, for instance.

"Think about power," he said. "It's our voice in Congress."

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The 2010 census counted 308 million people and 7.8 billion statistics about them.

But it is the allocation of money that has local officials and community leaders looking for high response rates. Sebastino said census data determines the yearly distributions to states and communities for "Section 8 housing vouchers, WIC (Women, Infants and Children), SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), infrastructure, emergency services ... the list goes on and on."

In response to a question by Select Board member Kate Burke, Sebastino said the homeless are also counted, without disturbing them.

Data is also collected where there are groups of people, including at nursing homes, prisons and colleges. The system makes sure that people are not counted twice, he said.

Sebastino said that responses are protected by federal law, "and only used to produce statistics." Information is protected with data encryption, and can't be shared with government agencies or courts. And, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's website, "Census workers are sworn to confidentiality for life."

Experts are still, however, debating the best way to protect privacy, given an algorithm shift the agency made in 2018 to reinforce confidentiality, according to an article in Science Magazine.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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