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The state promised millions of dollars to help with census outreach. Many officials are still waiting

Census notices are scheduled to start hitting mailboxes on Thursday.

Bill Galvin
Bill GalvinJessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Months before the country’s closely watched census was to begin, state lawmakers created up to $3.9 million in new grants for cities, towns, and nonprofit groups to help ensure the state’s hard-to-count populations, in fact, get counted.

But with the US Census Bureau distributing notices starting Thursday, Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office has issued only a portion of the funds it has promised nonprofits. Even less clear is exactly when or how the $1 million the Legislature set aside specifically for cities and towns will be divided after Galvin did not conduct a formal application process, as required.

The holdup of millions of pledged dollars, nonprofit leaders say, could complicate efforts to educate citizens at a time when the spread of coronavirus is already threatening to jeopardize counting efforts. As frustrating as that it is, they say the delay is also surprising given the extensive public outreach and behind-the-scenes work Galvin’s office has already poured into the census effort elsewhere.

"We’ve been trying to do this for a very long time. It’s kind of incredible that the last day [before notices go out] the money hasn’t gotten out there,” said Beth Huang, director of the Massachusetts Voter Table. She said she’s been discussing the specific nonprofit funding with Galvin’s office since last May.

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“It’s frankly surprising to see they didn’t have the infrastructure to disperse the funds," Huang said. “We have given them a long runway to stand up these programs.”

As of Wednesday, Galvin’s office said it sent roughly $658,000 in checks to nearly 30 nonprofits, including $55,000 to the Berkshire Planning Commission, which serves an area where Internet connectivity could be lacking at a time federal officials have encouraged people to respond to census requests online.

That leaves more than $1.2 million in other grant awards that still have yet to be sent. Neither the nonprofits, nor state and local officials, perform the census counting themselves, but the money is designed to spur outreach and education among what the state considered “historically underserved” populations, including immigrants, those who speak limited English, or low-income neighborhoods.

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In a phone interview, Galvin said he’s sought to time the delivery of the grants with when the Census Bureau “would begin the count." He also said he’s gotten conflicting information from federal officials about when, and how, they were going to mail initial census notices and what forms would be included.

“We’re looking for a result. The grant money is designed to help groups help the bureau get a response," Galvin said. “It’s important the grant money be in the hand of the recipient in coordination with when the bureau is supposed to solicit the information. Giving it a month ago wouldn’t help.”

Nonprofit leaders and lawmakers roundly disagree. Some organizations don’t have the flexibility to pour funds into outreach efforts, with the promise of being reimbursed later. Plus, they argue, the nature of census outreach requires starting messaging to residents, either online or in person, well before the formal count starts.

“The whole point is to do it proactively," said Senator Rebecca L. Rausch. Under a provision Rausch wrote, Galvin’s office is required to distribute at least 50 percent of the nonprofit grants by Feb. 15 — a statutory deadline his office missed.

“Without doing that groundwork and that grass-roots outreach in advance of the census rollout, people won’t respond," the Needham Democrat said. “And when people don’t respond, then we are in a reactive mode instead of a proactive mode.”

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Katie Campbell Simons, a consultant with the Massachusetts Census Equity Fund, roundly praised how Galvin’s office has worked with the group. But it, too, is still waiting for $75,000 in grant money it will disperse to other organizations.

“This is the big hiccup," she said. “Things are happening tomorrow. Communities are just overwhelmed, and a lot of the nonprofits are relying on this help. And if they don’t get [the grants], they can’t do the work.”

For cities and towns, there’s less clarity. That $1 million grant program wasn’t created until December, when state lawmakers included it in a supplemental spending bill, requiring it be distributed through a competitive grant process.

Galvin, however, said he’s not basing those grants on “who sent us what proposal” but rather where “it will do the most good," namely cities that have traditionally high nonresponse rates. That includes places such as Lawrence and New Bedford, he said, but it’s possible they won’t see the funds until April, when census-takers begin visiting people door to door.

“You have to target the efforts to help the bureau at a time when it’s most effective,” Galvin said, noting that federal officials have struggled to hire workers to knock doors. “That’s when I’m most concerned.”

Galvin said the spread of coronavirus, and the decision by an ever-increasing number of colleges to cancel in-person classes, send students home, and shift learning online has also created a “real crisis” in ensuring they’re accurately counted, enough so he’s contacted the state’s congressional delegation for help.

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“The bigger issue for us right now is the closing of the colleges," he said.

But local officials also juggling concerns over coronavirus say the funds could help them. Ron Cochran, a spokesman for Malden Mayor Gary Christenson, said the city has been relying on volunteers to educate residents about the census, and hopes — with a state grant — to fund a social media advertising campaign that could reach residents who are now wary of attending public events promoting the nationwide count.

“That’s why the funds are so critical. There’s no anticipated fund to dip into,” Cochran said.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said he’d welcome any resources the state provides, but that timing matters. He also sent a letter to the city’s State House delegation on Wednesday expressing frustration that only one of four nonprofits that serve Lawrence received a grant from Galvin’s office, totaling $20,000.

“I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but money in April means we won’t be able to spend it until May or even June,” Rivera said “Surprised we didn’t have it sooner.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout