Census 2020, Explained

Panelists at the forum emphasized the importance of recruiting “trusted voices” to rally people unfamiliar with or fearful of this massive data collection effort by the government.

TBF News Fall 2018

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Let the countdown begin. Census 2020 is only 17 months away, and there are a lot of issues to contend with—particularly for Massachusetts.

Well known among those is the disputed addition of an untested question on citizenship status. For added complication, this will be the first decennial census to rely on online responses. Locally, one quarter of Massachusetts residents and 63 percent of Bostonians live in “hard to count” census tracts, so named because they garner less than 70 percent response rates. To top off these challenges, the upcoming federal Census has been funded at far lower levels than past efforts.

Census 2020, Explained: How It Works and What’s at Stake for Massachusetts was the second report released by Boston Indicators in October, this one authored by Peter Ciurczak with the Massachusetts Census Equity Fund. The report recaps Census basics and highlights current challenges.

It was released on October 23rd at a forum at the Foundation, with remarks and discussion by leaders at the grassroots, state and federal level. Beth Huang of Massachusetts Voter Table; Susan Strate, whose work intersects with research and the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office, and Jeff Behler representing our regional office of the U.S. Census Bureau formed the panel. They shared what their respective organizations are doing to “get out the count,” and engaged in a discussion led by Alexie Torres of the Massachusetts Census Equity Fund.


Percentage of Boston residents who live in tracts considered "hard to count" by the U.S. Census

With the understanding that an accurate Census is the cornerstone of our democracy, even as its implementation may be caught up in temporal politics, panelists agreed that getting everyone in the Commonwealth counted is a top priority. No matter how passionately or how cleverly that message is delivered, if it doesn’t come from a “trusted voice”—a term all the presenters used—it may not be enough to rally people unfamiliar with or fearful of this massive data collection effort by the government. The effort to recruit these trusted voices and to advocate for participation will be a joint effort at all levels, homing in on the local.

Pointed questions came from the forum audience about the citizenship question, and about the counting of people who are incarcerated or without homes. There were no easy answers, but a sense we should all be advocates.

“Despite the questions and doubts, opting out doesn’t work,” said Torres. “Civic engagement matters—all the time—and sometimes we may have to engage in the contradictions, the messiness, of our democracy.”