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Boston is usually undercounted in the census. This year may be worse

A census booth was set up at a farmers market near Everett City Hall.
A census booth was set up at a farmers market near Everett City Hall.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The year 2020 was supposed to be a big deal, census-wise, one that officials had been planning for a decade. There would be electronic forms! Outreach in libraries and churches! Passion for getting counted! In 2020, the hot topic would be the US Census.

Then a few other things happened.

Now, advocates and census officials fear that some cities which were already tricky to count will be even more challenging this year. Self-response rates across the state suggest troubling disparities, with many of the typically hardest-to-count communities — Boston, Everett, Chelsea, and Lawrence — also reeling from the coronavirus. Officials fear that might result in serious undercounts in cities that need federal aid most.

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Currently, Boston ranks in the bottom five cities statewide, with just 53 percent of residents filling out the form online, by phone, or by mail so far. Lawrence and Chelsea are faring even worse, with fewer than 50 percent of the population having filled out the form. In contrast, nearby wealthier and whiter municipalities such as Newton and Melrose have response rates above 76 percent. Overall the state has a 64 percent response rate, a few points higher than the national rate.

“This has been an incredibly challenging effort this time,” said Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the state’s official liaison to the 2020 Census, who has been involved in two previous counts. “We still have a third [of the population] to count. It’s the disproportionate location of that third which is the problem.”

The census is used to calculate federal funding and determine representation in Congress; for Massachusetts, roughly $16 billion is on the line.

“This affects our schools, our infrastructure, our health care, child care, the senior centers, the public works, our roads,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and chairwoman of the state’s 2020 Complete Count Committee.

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Even before the pandemic, there were concerns about achieving a more accurate count than in previous years. The Trump administration’s failed effort to add a citizenship question sent terror through immigrant communities already wary of sharing information with authorities. Then the census was delayed, as organizations and federal officials scrambled to transition an in-person operation to a digital one. And finally, the coronavirus pummeled communities, including in Boston, Chelsea, and Lawrence, that were already difficult to count because of high populations of renters, immigrants, and college students.

“Historically, looking at the trends, we tend to be undercounted,” said Sebastian Zapata, a senior analyst and census liaison for the City of Boston. In past years, Boston had among the lowest census return rate in the country, according to the secretary of state’s office, and ranked as the ninth hardest-to-count city among the largest 100 US cities.

Boston entered the season aiming to “hit and surpass” 64 percent, the final self-response rate from 2010, Zapata said. But it’s currently about 12 points short of that goal. The city is planning to ramp up phone and text banking and is distributing thousands of fliers at meal sites and coordinating with the Census Bureau to set up in-person help sessions. Still, Zapata fears a worst-case scenario.

In 2010, the final self-response rates for some hard-to-count communities in the state were similarly much higher than they are now (to be fair, the current numbers are not yet final — people still have until October to respond). In Chelsea, for example, the final self-response rate was 63 percent, while it is now 49 percent. But in Newton, by contrast, the final self-response rate in 2010 was 78 percent, and is now almost 77 percent, suggesting it’s not struggling to achieve its 2010 results.

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The highest quality data comes from the first phase, when people self-respond, said Jeff T. Behler, regional director of the census. In the next few weeks, the Census Bureau will begin the next phase, sending out door knockers to those who remain uncounted across the state. But such canvassing is an expensive and difficult proposition, likely made harder this year because people won’t want to answer the door during a pandemic. And starting so late in the year leaves the bureau little time to track down everyone, Galvin said.

Inaccurate counts can have real consequences.

“If we are accounting for affluent white homeowners at higher rates than Black and Latinx families with young children, then that will necessarily skew the funding,” said Diana Elliott, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute and co-author of the “Who’s At Risk of Being Miscounted?” project. “You’ll have communities that will necessarily get less than their fair share.”

In 2010, undercounts occurred among communities of color and transient populations, with a national net undercount of roughly 2 percent for Black Americans, 1.5 percent for Latinx people, and 1.1 percent for renters, according to the Census Bureau. This year officials hoped to do better, but the obstacles to a complete count have increased.

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Cities with high populations of immigrants have always been harder to count, Millona said, an issue exacerbated by the Trump administration. Last year, after a series of court cases, the administration dropped plans to add a citizenship question to the census.

But just this past week, President Trump issued a memo directing the federal government not to count undocumented immigrants when allocating the nation’s House districts. Critics say the move is unconstitutional and it is already being challenged in a lawsuit. Still, the administration’s efforts may chill participation among immigrants.

“Our communities are already afraid of immigration authorities. They are sometimes afraid of public institutions that are requiring important information,” said Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, an immigrant-rights group based in East Boston.

Language, too, can be a barrier when it comes to census counts in cities with many immigrants.

“In our community, not everyone has access to a computer, and a lot of them don’t read English,” said Jose Barros, a community organizer with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Roxbury. “When you open the [census] letter ... they don’t understand it. It’s another junk mail to them.”

A University of Massachusetts Boston study of barriers to census participation commissioned by the city of Chelsea found that even some community leaders in the city wouldn’t necessarily recommend their constituents participate because of deportation concerns. One former representative brought up the federal government’s secret use of census data to detain Japanese citizens during World War II, said Lorna Rivera, the head of the Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy, which conducted the Chelsea study.

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Federal law now prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing any personally identifiable material until 72 years after it was collected; census employees face prison time and fines if they share information. But fears remain.

Another barrier to participation in hard-hit cities across the state is simply the enormous toll the coronavirus has taken.

“They are saying, ‘I need to give food to my kids,‘ said Montes, whose organization Centro Presente is distributing fliers about the census along with food boxes. “They are thinking, ‘how can I send the body of my nephew or my dad to El Salvador?‘ They are not thinking about the census.”

But, she said, the organization was boosting its outreach, through community meetings, phone banking, fliers, and social media. The count is essential, she said.

“You should be counted,” she said, “because you have political and economic rights.”



Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.