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Key takeaways about the 2020 federal census


This is the second in a series of ongoing posts about the U.S. Federal Census. To learn more, visit our 2020 census website.

What’s at stake for Boston and Massachusetts

An accurate census is critical for helping ensure that federal funding gets to the people and projects that need support. Much of this funding helps the most vulnerable among us. The funds provide, for example, healthy food and child care for low-income families. The amount was roughly $16 billion for Massachusetts in Fiscal Year 2015. 

Accurate counts also matter a lot at the city and town level. The federal government provides financial help to communities and schools that have higher numbers of children in poverty. In this way, we make sure they have the resources to help children meet challenging academic state standards. These funding allocations are based mostly on census poverty estimates.

Boston has among the lowest federal census return rates in the nation. This is in part due to our large proportion of renters, college students, and recent immigrants.

Boston is ninth hardest to count among the largest 100 U.S. cities. Among a set of eight similar cities, it’s the most hard to count. Get-out-the-count organizing is important everywhere,  but it’s especially important in places like Boston that have had lower return rates.

Other urban areas in Massachusetts also have very low Census return rates. These include Gateway Cities, like Lawrence and Fall River. Getting an accurate count in these places is especially important. They are home to disproportionate shares of the state’s people of color and recent immigrants.

Massachusetts is not likely to lose or gain a seat in the federal House of Representatives based on Census 2020. But, if vulnerable populations go undercounted within Massachusetts, they risk being underrepresented in state and local offices when local political boundaries are redrawn.

Local nonprofits play a key role in supplementing official U.S. Census Bureau efforts to get out the count. The Massachusetts Census Equity Fund has already begun to prepare for the 2020 count by:

  1. raising funds for local outreach efforts
  2. educating the public about why an accurate Census is so important, and
  3. beginning to coordinate efforts to increase response rates in hard to count communities in 2020.

Emerging issues related to Census 2020

Federal funding for Census 2020 is well below funding levels at equivalent points in previous 10-year Census funding cycles.

Low federal funding is especially concerning. Why? It’s because mail-in response rates declined from 78 percent in 1970 to 63 percent in 2010. The Census Bureau requires greater resources to conduct in-person outreach to households that do not respond to initial mailers.

The Census Bureau planned to include a new question on citizenship status, but that question was blocked in federal court. Still, the news around a potential citizenship question has the potential to depress response rates.

Respondents will complete the census online for the first time. This adds new challenges to ensure that even those without ready access to the Internet complete their questionnaires.

The Census Bureau has made efforts to protect personal data that it receives. Federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing any identifying information, either with public or private entities.

Advocates have been pressuring the Census Bureau to improve how it gathers data on race, ethnicity, and LGBTQ populations. The Bureau has made small tweaks to how this information is gathered. But, Census 2020 will miss an opportunity to restructure these questions more broadly to gain better data on these populations.

The information from this post is taken from "Census 2020: How it Works and What’s at Stake for Massachusetts", a report from Boston Indicators.