Regional planning chief urges feds to drop census citizenship question

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PITTSFIELD — Since 149,402 people were counted as Berkshire County residents in 1970, a high water mark for humanity, the region has been leaking people.

The leader of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission doesn't want missteps by the U.S. Census Bureau to contribute to the problem.

In a letter to the Department of Commerce, Thomas Matuszko asks that the census reverse course and drop plans to include a question about citizenship status in the 2020 count.

"It will jeopardize the accuracy of the Census in our communities," Matuszko wrote in a July 12 letter to the department, in response to its request for comment.

In March, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced that the census he oversees would inquire about citizenship, a query that hasn't been part of the 10-year count since 1950, according to the website Politifact.

Ross said the change was driven by a request from the Justice Department, which said it needs the information to enforce a section of the Voting Rights Act.

State attorneys general are fighting the addition of the question, saying it will suppress the count at a time when the Trump administration has stepped up efforts to target people who lack proper immigration approvals.

Matuszko, the commission's executive director, said an undercount in Berkshire County would exacerbate the area's declining population, costing it in tangible ways.

"So much of funding decisions and political decisions are based on population. We want to make sure that everyone in Berkshire County is counted," he said Thursday.

After notching a population peak in 1970, the county has seen numbers fall steadily — to 145,110 in 1980, 139,352 in 1990, 134,953 in 2000 and 131,219 in 2010, the date of the last decennial tally.

As of 2017, the county's population was pegged at 126,313, a 15.4 percent loss since the historical high in 1970.

In his letter, Matuszko said commission members are concerned that the citizenship question will result in "a large portion of the population that does not respond to the Census in its entirety or leaves that question blank, thus causing statistical questions with the official count."

He notes that people already are asked about their citizenship status in the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. Other federal agencies also can provide the same data, he said.

Matuszko then argues that the question will worsen the county's position as it competes for federal assistance based on population.

Massachusetts learned that it would lose one of its 10 congressional districts after the last federal count. While the U.S. population as a whole grew by 9.7 percent from 2000 to 2010, the state's population rose by one-third of that — 3.1 percent — and was outpaced by growth in the South and West.

"In the last few years we have been focusing our efforts on attracting new residents to the county," Matuszko wrote in his letter. "We are concerned that the lack of response that will be caused by this question will undermine some of the changes we have seen in our region."

On another issue, Matuszko cautioned in his letter that, given the continued lack of broadband internet connections in some Berkshire County towns, the census should not rely on people responding to surveys online.

Matuszko said this week that in the months ahead, he and others plan to mount a local effort to support a full and accurate count for the 2020 census.

"It's going to take a broad effort to get the word out that the Census is not a bad thing," he said.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.



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