Ten years ago, the federal government counted the residents of Chelsea and arrived at a number that city officials in the densely packed immigrant city found improbably, impossibly low: 35,181. Broadway might be packed with families and their young children in tow on their way to the Stop and Compare Supermarket, but in the eyes of the government, Chelsea was barely the size of Woburn, and much smaller than neighboring Revere and Everett.
That single number, which has formed the basis for subsequent official estimates of Chelsea’s population, has haunted the city for a decade. That figure has deprived the city of its fair share of federal health, housing, and economic development funds that are handed out on the basis of population, and made it ineligible altogether for some funding that might have helped the city address environmental issues like mold and lead paint in its aging housing stock.
And when the coronavirus struck this year, the number may have helped turn the city into a national tragedy.
Although it’s impossible to say with certainty, failure to count every resident of Chelsea back in 2010 probably exacerbated the coronavirus outbreak, which ripped through the overcrowded buildings with such astonishing ferocity that it’s become a national symbol of the disease’s disproportionate impact on low-income Black and brown residents. With its access to federal funds for housing and environmental remediation limited, the city was less equipped for the disaster. Chelsea has reported 2,836 cases and has a rate of infection far beyond the state average.
Now, the severity of the outbreak in Chelsea is also complicating the door-by-door, person-by-person effort to produce a more accurate count this year. Getting an accurate count is always important for town budgets, and to draw political boundaries.
But for Chelsea in 2020, a city struggling to recover from the staggering blow of COVID-19, an accurate count has become a matter of justice, too.
WHAT CHELSEA HAS LOST
Just across the Mystic River from Boston, Chelsea occupies only about 2 square miles. It has no subway stations, forcing its residents to pack unreliable buses to reach jobs in Boston, and a sordid history of municipal corruption.
Over the last few decades, the city has become a magnet for Latino immigrants, mainly from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Many are undocumented, and estimates of the numbers left off the census rolls in 2010 start at about 5,000.
“The research I’ve seen suggests that our state’s foreign-born population is undercounted by 15-20 percent, which would definitely lead to a higher estimate for Chelsea but probably not over 60,000,” said Trevor Mattos, Research Manager at Boston Indicators, the Boston Foundation’s research center.
Mary Bourque, who was the Chelsea Public Schools superintendent until last year, said that they estimated the city’s population undercount was anywhere from 25 to 30 percent. “Historically, Chelsea has always been in the top three for its high school mobility rate, which is the number of students moving in and out of the school system,” said Bourque. “And that’s a good estimate of the undercount. Any given year, that rate was 20 to 30 percent.”
Gladys Vega, executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative, firmly believes there could be up to 75,000 people living in Chelsea right now. “That’s not an exaggeration,” she said. “It’s based on the work I do on the streets. I have been dropping off food boxes for people at their homes during the pandemic and I have seen up to 12 people living in a two-bedroom apartment. That’s our reality.”
In regular times, an inaccurate population count can cheat the state and localities out of significant government funding. For instance, in 2016 Massachusetts received $22 billion through federal spending programs based just on the 2010 census count, including social initiatives in key areas: food and nutrition, affordable housing, Medicaid, and other programs. A similar analysis using 2015 data found that the state lost roughly $2,300 in funding for every person who’s not counted. For cities and towns, an undercount could also mean less political representation at the state Legislature.
Consider the CARES Act, enacted by Congress in late March to address the harsh economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic nationwide. The comprehensive package included much-needed relief funds for local governments. Chelsea was allocated up to $3.5 million based on its official population count of about 40,000 people. In contrast, neighboring Revere, which officially has 53,000 residents and is five times Chelsea’s geographic size, is eligible for $4.7 million. If one is to believe there’s an undercount of 10,000 residents or so in Chelsea, the city is losing at least a million dollars in COVID-19 assistance alone right now.
Tom Ambrosino, Chelsea’s city manager, offered another example. The CARES Act allocated money to be distributed directly to municipalities through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grants. But the one-time assistance is available only to eligible communities, typically of 50,000 residents or more in size. “For example, Revere got an additional $400,000 from that grant money. We could have used it for things like small business assistance," said Ambrosino.
Pandemic or not, it’s not just federal money that Chelsea is losing. The city’s nonprofits have also lost private foundation grants due to its population undercount. A year ago, GreenRoots, an environmental justice group in Chelsea, applied for the Kresge Foundation’s Climate Change, Health & Equity Initiative, which would have granted them more than $100,000 precisely to design a response to climate-related events that would focus on reducing health risks. “As we’ve seen with COVID-19, Chelsea is a front-line community that will be hit first and worst by climate events,” said Roseann Bongiovanni, executive director of the nonprofit. “[The foundation was] looking for communities of 50,000 or more. We were making an argument that we had the equivalent of 50,000 or more, but the census data doesn’t support it and we didn’t get it.”
THE 2020 CENSUS AT RISK
Now that the 2020 Census is underway, the coronavirus crisis has created a dilemma that no one has yet quite figured out how to address: Conventional strategies like door-to-door knocking or libraries as key locations to get people to fill out the census are not viable in the age of social distancing. How best to count people now is not just a matter of money — though more funds are important — but it’s also a question of collaboration and creative thinking. And, in the case of Massachusetts, of political will. The state needs to get out in front of the issue or risk severe undercounting not just in Chelsea, but in other cities that share similar challenges.
Some of that is already happening in Chelsea, which by the end of May had the lowest census 2020 self-response rate, at 45.4 percent. That’s people who filled out the form online, by phone, or by mail. (Statewide, the self-response rate was 62.5 percent, a little above the national average of 60.5, but below the 2010 statewide rate of 68.8 percent.) For the past 10 weeks or so, the Chelsea Collaborative, the most prominent nonprofit organization in the city, has been deploying five census workers with tablets at its food pantry line and just hired 10 more.
“I go person by person and ask them, ‘¿Ya llenaste el censo?’” said Estephany Escobar, a 26-year-old census field organizer who has been helping people complete their forms, using a tablet, for the past two months or so at the Collaborative. “People are afraid of giving out their personal information to the government, they’re afraid of what Trump might do with it. Some also say, 'Oh, but I’m an immigrant, that doesn’t help me.’” (It does: The Census counts residents, regardless of whether they are citizens.)
On really good days, Escobar has done about 40 census forms or more. Last week, Escobar was explaining to Rosa Hernandez, a 42-year-old Salvadoran immigrant who has lived in Chelsea for 15 years but didn’t participate in the census in 2010, why completing the census form matters. She told Hernandez that the city gets a couple thousand dollars more per person if she fills out her form, and that it has nothing to do with immigration status. Hernandez was convinced and proceeded to be counted — along with the six other members of her household.
“We did receive some documents in the mail but we all got sick,” said Hernandez, who used to work at the casino in Everett before it shut down. Everyone except a baby contracted the virus. Hernandez’ husband spent 17 days intubated.
Of course, census challenges are not exclusive to Chelsea; other gateway cities like Lawrence and Everett, which follow as the second and third municipalities with the lowest census self-response rates, also have, and risk further, population underestimates.
The risk factors that made Chelsea highly vulnerable during the pandemic are the same ones that made its residents very hard to count. The city has a high share of an undocumented and highly transient population; there might be people coming for only a few months for the purposes of labor; there are many people, sometimes in the double digits, living in a single housing unit; and there is a large percentage of Spanish speakers, which makes them harder to reach.
“It’s so unfortunate that the COVID-19 pandemic hit when it did, because we were in fact ready for this census,” said City Manager Ambrosino. “We had put a lot of time and effort in preparing to do an accurate count. Not only did we have the state’s resources, but our city council had appropriated an additional $100,000.
“Now I’m really fearful that not only are we not going to reach the goals that we had initially set, but we may in fact be worse off than we were in 2010,” Ambrosino added.
It is critical that strategies to ensure a proper population count this year are adjusted due to the pandemic. The US Census Bureau has already delayed key summer deadlines. But, according to the state’s official liaison to the Census Bureau, Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the agency remains in a state of administrative disarray. Census officials have been very vague about the census timeline during the pandemic, Galvin said, which in turn complicates local plans. For instance, door-to-door knocking — a crucial part of the census effort that takes place between May and July — is now supposed to start after August 11.
“There is no cohesive administrative strategy, just delays,“ said Galvin. He has about $350,000 left in municipal grants for census efforts, and he has already given about $75,000 to the Chelsea. But he doesn’t want to issue more grants until there’s more clarity coming from the federal government. What’s the point of, say, running census ads on radio and TV until door-to-door knocking is underway? “The reason I haven’t spent it is that I don’t want to waste it. I want to be able to put additional money in communities at the time it’s going to count the most.”
One additional wrinkle: Galvin was supposed to spend those census municipal funds in the current fiscal year, which concludes June 30. He has asked the state Legislature to extend that authorization for six months, but lawmakers have not acted on it yet.
We learned the cost of ignoring invisible immigrant communities like Chelsea during the COVID-19 crisis. To be sure, it will take more than just an accurate census count to fix the housing and environmental conditions that made Chelsea so vulnerable to the pandemic. But getting that number wrong again will practically guarantee another decade of underrepresentation for Chelsea’s residents and insufficient resources to address their needs. In 2020, we need to get it right.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.