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Citing an undercount of college students and immigrants, Wu challenges 2020 Census tally

The count has consequences when it comes to the allocation of public resources and understanding the needs of Boston’s various communities.

Census field organizer Jeffrey Tellez, right, interviewed a resident in the food pantry line at the Chelsea Collaborative on June 4, 2020.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Mayor Michelle Wu is challenging the 2020 Census population count in Boston, arguing that it significantly understated the number of college students, foreign-born residents, and those behind bars.

“Because the count happened overlapping with the pandemic . . . we believe that there needs to be some adjustments and that our numbers are actually higher in certain cases,” Wu said during a Tuesday appearance on GBH. The city estimates that around 700,000 people should have been counted in 2020, rather than the 675,647 tallied by the census.

Getting the number right is significant, given the census’s central role in determining the allocation of public resources and understanding the needs of various communities.


Wu said she based her appeal on research from the Boston Planning and Development Agency.

“There are a lot of factors, but no matter what, we want to be clear about what Boston sees as the full count, so that each of our residents would actually receive the resources they deserve,” Wu said, acknowledging she wasn’t sure how often such challenges to the count prevail.

Boston is hardly alone in questioning the 2020 count, which was characterized by controversy, including efforts by the Trump administration to include a citizenship question in the once-in-a-decade survey. (The Supreme Court blocked it.)

The Associated Press reported earlier this year that Detroit’s mayor believes tens of thousands of residents there were missed, and that leaders in Somerton, Ariz., questioned the notion they lost residents during a decade when that community grew enough to warrant a new high school. According to the AP, college towns across the country believe they were undercounted as students fled campuses and COVID-19.

Boston is submitting a “post-census group quarters review,” a new, one-time opportunity for municipal, state, and tribal governments to request that the Census Bureau review the counts of people living in group arrangements that they believe were not correctly tallied. The census defines “group quarters” as places where people live or stay in a group-living arrangement, owned or managed by an entity that provides housing or services for the residents. They can include correctional facilities, student housing, homeless shelters, treatment centers, group homes, and nursing facilities.


“This is the right time, and there is an opportunity right now to correct some of the count issues the city experienced during the 2020 count,” said Susan Strate, the senior program manager of the population estimates program at the UMass Donahue Institute. “I think it’s a great thing.”

Yearly population estimates that affect federal funding use occupancy rates from the 2020 Census, which many argue were aberrant in student-heavy neighborhoods because of the pandemic, Strate said.

So far, the Census Bureau has received nine requests for the group-quarters review. The process is separate from another review track under which local and state governments can raise boundary problems or request review of housing counts. Dozens of local governments have appealed their 2020 counts under the separate review program, but city officials believe Boston’s 2020 boundaries and housing count are correct.

Boston authorities also aim to open a discussion with census officials regarding challenges that impacted the count, including potential changes to race classification to help make sure the city’s communities are accurately reflected.

According to census data, Suffolk County, which is anchored by Boston, saw one of the steepest population declines in the country last year, losing 3.3 percent of its population in just 15 months, reflecting the departure of tens of thousands of people from Boston and its surrounding communities.


Wu argues that the pandemic cleared out college and university living quarters in mid-March 2020, weeks before the count was conducted.

The city also is objecting to changes to the census’ racial and ethnic classifications.

The move to full remote learning meant that about 6,000 additional college students in Boston were not accounted for in the 2020 Census redistricting data, Wu’s release said. Additionally, records from the Suffolk County Department of Corrections show that their two correctional facilities on April 1, 2020, housed approximately 500 additional residents than reported by the census redistricting data, according to the Wu administration.

The city has other concerns, including low rates of people who choose to respond to the census themselves made worse by COVID, something Wu’s office said the “census’ operation has failed to adequately address.” If an individual household doesn’t respond, the bureau tries other methods to collect the data, including as a first try sending a census worker to knock on individual doors, multiple times if needed. The administration points to the 2010 census, when all of the city’s census tracts’ self response rates were above 50 percent. Ten years later, it was a different story, with 29 census tracts — about 15 percent of Boston’s total populated tracts — registering a self-response rate between 30 percent and 50 percent.


Some of the tracts contain either large communities of off-campus students or foreign-born residents, said the mayor’s office. The students may have left the city once universities went full remote, Wu’s administration argued. The city also said that issues such as language barriers and government mistrust may have curbed the response rate in immigrant communities, particularly given “prevalent anti-immigrant sentiment when the count was administered.”

Likewise, City Council President Ed Flynn, whose district includes Chinatown, said Tuesday that many of his constituents were reluctant to fill out the census “due to hateful rhetoric from the Trump administration and challenges posed by the pandemic, digital equity, and language access.”

In a statement, Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune said a census undercount “would unjustifiably lead to our receipt of fewer federal dollars to tackle issues like housing & education.”

“It is vitally important that we are getting accurate census data to help ensure we measure what matters, and what matters most is every person,” she said.

Wu on Tuesday also took issue with the census race classification system, saying it “heavily impacted Boston’s data.”

Wu contends that a new approach to race classification resulted in Black and white populations appearing to be smaller while multiracial and “other” populations appear larger, adding that the categorization methodology could underestimate the number of people who identify as white or Black.

Wu charges that multiracial or “other” categories “are too heterogeneous to be lumped together for data analysis or policy” creation.


City Councilor Liz Breadon, who represents Allston and Brighton, which both have significant college-age populations, said she was “particularly concerned” that Allston reported a 5.9 percent overall population loss, according to the census figures. The federal tally, she pointed out, also recorded a 40 percent decline in the “group quarters” population for Allston, a category that would include on-campus student housing figures.

“Correcting the count will help inform the needs of our communities and ensure every Bostonian is reflected,” said Breadon, chair of the council’s redistricting committee.

Massachusetts’ population grew to slightly more than 7 million people in 2020, the largest increase of any New England state over the last 10 years at 7.4 percent, helping to retain its nine congressional seats.

Travis Andersen of the Globe staff and correspondent Alexander Thompson contributed to this story.

Danny McDonald can be reached at Follow him @Danny__McDonald.