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Undercounting the 2020 Census could cost Massachusetts millions

Catherine McGloin
Undercounting the 2020 Census could cost Massachusetts millions
A barrier to participation in the 2020 census could be the newly added citizenship question. Photo by Osman Rana.

Federal funding for Massachusetts’s schools, health care and social services could be cut if children from immigrant and low-income families are undercounted in the 2020 census, according to a report released last week.

The report, produced by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a nonprofit think tank, warns that if Massachusetts residents are not accurately counted in the next decennial census, federal funds allocated to schools and social services on the basis of census population data could be affected.

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To read the full Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center report, visit:

“These numbers form the basis for many state policies,” said Nancy Wagman, author of the report and director of the center’s Massachusetts Kids Count initiative. “Inaccurate counts can affect resources that go to our classrooms, that provide health care, and support other important programs for children and adults.”

Each year, more than $675 billion of federal funding is distributed across the country, and allocations are often based on population data collected in the mandatory census, released every decade.

If this data is incorrect, then “the pictures we paint of our communities could be distorted; and our state could miss out on significant amounts of federal funding,” wrote Wagman in the report.

The largest pots of federal cash at risk are those spent on education. In the upcoming fiscal year for example, it is anticipated that Massachusetts will receive more than $290 million towards the state’s federally-funded special education grant program.

Authorized under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, federal funds are allotted to this program based on information about the number of school-aged children in poverty living in Massachusetts — crucial data collected in the census. If undercounted, fewer federal dollars will be available to spend on free and appropriate public education for children with disabilities.

Similarly, inaccurate 2020 census data could impact funding for Head Start and Early Head Start grants. The federal government is planning to give Massachusetts more than $156 million towards these grants in 2019, and they are awarded to local preschools who help low-income children under the age of five prepare for kindergarten.

John J. Drew, president and CEO of Action for Boston Community Development, a nonprofit that directs low-income families to these federally-funded preschool programs, told the Banner he is concerned that an undercount could lead to less funding, which would mean fewer children enrolled in the programs.

The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center’s research also shows an undercount could put federal block grants for social services in jeopardy, leaving vulnerable children and their families at risk of abuse and neglect. For 2019, the federal government has pledged $33 million to fund these services across the state.

The U. S. Census Bureau has a history of botching the count of children in Massachusetts. In 2010, it is estimated that 20,000 children were not represented in the data collected.

The bureau can use a process called “imputation” to fill in the gaps with information from federal and state records. A decade ago, this added more than one million people to the dataset, but it is still a flawed system that leaves many people unaccounted for.

Wagman’s report highlights the risk of undercounting children and adults from immigrant and low-income backgrounds, whose living arrangements may not be easily defined, or who may be difficult to reach. This includes low-income neighborhoods where multi-unit accommodation and rental housing is common.


Given the amount of construction in Boston over the last decade, Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s office told the Banner the city has been working with the U.S. Census Bureau to provide them with the most up-to-date residential address list, ensuring surveys can be sent to every known household in the city.

The mayor’s office also plans to form the Boston Complete Count Committee, responsible for outreach within populations that are typically difficult to count. No further details could be given, but a representative from the mayor’s press office said they will be recruiting for a census liaison officer in the coming months who will focus on reaching children, recent immigrants, households with poor internet access and non-English speakers.

For some of these residents, Wagman reports, completing the census may just be paperwork that falls to the bottom of the priority list, while others may not speak English or feel uncomfortable talking to census staff.

“People need to be counted if they really want to have the services that they claim they want,” said U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, who is concerned about the federal funds at stake, but confident that city and state officials can work together with communities to ensure as many people as possible are counted.

Version 3.0 of the U.S. Census Bureau’s operational plan for 2020, the most recent, released in September last year, states, “High Internet response is critical for cost savings and major efforts are underway to minimize the amount of self-response via telephone, paper questionnaire, and in-person visits.” It is hoped better online access will encourage participation and improve response accuracy.

Since the last census in 2010, the bureau has been testing questionnaire translations in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Russian and Arabic, and plans indicate they will “ensure cultural relevancy and meaningful translation of 2020 census questionnaires.”

Another barrier to participation in the 2020 census could be the newly added citizenship question.

The multi-choice question asks respondents if they are citizens, not if they are in the country legally, and was included in the decennial census from 1890 to 1950, a period of increased immigration to the U.S. It has also been included on the Census Bureau’s yearly American Community Survey, which collects data from 2.6 percent of the population and is used by the Justice Department, which requested it be added to the 2020 census.

Justice Department officials say they want this information so that they can protect minority citizens of voting age, under the Voting Rights Act. But, against a backdrop of heightened anti-immigration rhetoric and immigration enforcement officers separating families at the border, it’s thought that non-U.S. citizens and those in the country illegally may not participate in the Census out of fear for their own security.

“Doing the census has never been easy,” said Drew, who has worked with the city and nonprofits on ensuring complete counts of low-income residents and immigrant communities in five decennial censuses. “But this time it’s worse because you’re introducing another factor called the citizenship question,” he said. He added that it is “at best, another unnecessary, terrible move,” by President Donald Trump’s administration.

“My hope is that the immigrant question is not on the census,” said Capuano. “We’re going to do our best to stop that.”

Drew is also hopeful that it will be removed from the final version of the 2020 census.

“A lot of people are scared to death right now,” said Drew, citing the separation of families and the continued uncertainty facing DACA recipients. “All the administration is doing is scaring people away.”

The census will be sent to homes across the nation April 1, 2020.

2020 Census, citizenship, immigration