With Berkshires 'losing people,' residents being counted on to comply with census

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PITTSFIELD — The growth rate in Suffolk County in the greater Boston area is 11.8 percent. In Berkshire County, the growth rate is projected to be negative 3.7 percent, according to local officials.

Growth in the Boston area has accelerated since the previous decennial census, in 2010. Berkshire County has been losing population since the 1970s.

Given those uneven rates of growth, and the amount of federal aid that geographic areas receive based on their population, officials believe that local participation in the upcoming 2020 census could be crucial in determining Berkshire County's future over the next decade.

"Making sure we get a full and accurate account is extremely important," said state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, the facilitator for the Berkshire County Complete Count Committee who also is a member of the state committee on redistricting. "We're losing people."

The federal census, mandated by the U.S. Constitution, takes place every 10 years to determine the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives — it's a process based on population that is known as apportionment — and as a way to distribute the billions of federal dollars that local communities receive.

Because of data derived from the 2010 federal census, Massachusetts received $22.8 billion through 55 federal spending programs that included domestic financial assistance initiatives, and tax credit and procurement programs. The data is used to identify which organizations or individuals can receive money, and to create formulas to geographically allocate that money to eligible residents.

Statewide growth is about 5 percent, which should keep the state's federal congressional districts intact, Mark said. Not so with the 2010 census, after which the congressional seat of former U.S. Rep. John Olver was folded into Rep. Richard E. Neal's district.

"I don't see that happening again this year," said Mark Maloy, a member of the complete count committee. "But it does affect our state reps' and state senator's (districts), and Pittsfield's (seven) wards get reapportioned. ... We fully expect [state Sen.] Adams Hinds' district to get larger.

"We have four state reps," he said. "Do we have four in the coming year? We don't know. Hopefully, we will."

'Going to lose money'

During the 2010 census, the response rate across some of the Berkshires' 32 municipalities ranged from 82 to 93 percent, according to Mark; but the county's overall response rate 10 years ago was 74 percent, said Maloy, who also is a data and information technology manager for the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. The county's overall population is estimated at 126,348.

"In Berkshire County, we're going to lose money because of our declining population," Maloy said. "We estimate that it will be $2,700 a person; $350 million comes into the county every year. So, if we lose 1,000 people, that's $3 million that's not coming in. That reinforces the importance of making sure we count everyone."

Unlike in previous years, when the census was conducted via paper forms, the 2020 census will be conducted mostly online, Maloy said.

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"That's going to create challenges," he said. "The low-income and elderly populations may not have access to computers."

To help alleviate that issue, 24 of the Berkshires' 32 municipalities are providing locations with computers that can be used by the public to complete the census. Pittsfield has eight locations, and North Adams has five.

To find the census access point closest to you, visit 2020Census.gov.

Some will get paper surveys

But not every area of the Berkshires will be required to submit its census forms electronically. Based on income and other demographic information, the residents of downtown Pittsfield, the city's Morningside and West Side neighborhoods and the town of Sheffield initially will receive paper surveys, Maloy said.

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Invitations to complete the census form online and paper questionnaires seeking responses to the census will be mailed to Berkshire County residents between March 12 and March 20.

Residents will receive a letter that contains an online address where the surveys are located. Those who don't respond to the initial invitation will receive reminder letters between March 16 and March 24; a reminder postcard between March 26 and April 3; then a reminder letter with a paper questionnaire between April 8 an April 16. A final reminder postcard will be issued between April 20 and April 27.

"The fourth reminder will include paper," Maloy said. "But they really want everyone to respond online."

Those who have not responded to any of the reminders by the end of April will receive household visits from census enumerators.

"In May, they start to knock on doors," Maloy said. "That will continue through July and August. They have a hard deadline of Dec. 31 to report to the president the congressional apportionment."

Unlike with the 2010 census, Berkshire County will not have a local census office. The closest office to the Berkshires this time is in Worcester.

"Is that a detriment for us? Possibly," Maloy said. "But it's not as important as it was 10 years ago, when everything was still paper."

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A more immediate issue is misinformation about the census that might be posted on the internet, a more concerning issue for the 2020 census because it will be conducted mostly online.

"I think there's going to be misinformation spread from all sources," Maloy said, citing fake websites as an example. "Hopefully, it will not be from the federal government. ... It's going to be a battle making sure people go to 2020census.gov."

The official surveys will not ask for a respondent's income, bank account, Social Security number, donations or any related personal information, he said.

"If you come across a survey that asks for that," Maloy said, "that's not the official survey."

The official census website also will include an address for respondents to forward suspicious emails, and a phone number to call "to make sure people really are who they say they are," Mark said.

There also is more debate about immigration than there was 10 years ago, but local officials stress that an accurate count of the Berkshires' immigrant population is necessary, given the region's declining population.

According to Maloy, the Berkshire Immigrant Center in Pittsfield has applied for grants and developed an outreach strategy to deal with these issues.

"The immigrant population is an important segment that we need to work with," Maloy said. "It's pretty much our only growing [population] segment."

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said that, based on previous experiences working with the Southern Berkshire Literacy Network, immigrants who come from countries where the government can't be trusted often struggle with understanding the federal government's role in the census process.

That concern is heightened even more this year due to the country's polarization on immigration issues and the partisan political atmosphere.

"It's going to take a lot of extra work to explain to people why it's so important for them to fill out the census," she said. "But if there's a way you'd like to stand up to these shenanigans, the very best way to do it is to fill it out."

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.


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