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On a City Block or Rural Road, Reaching the Uncounted as Census Deadline Nears

Jennette Barnes
A Census table got very few takers at a recent promotional event in New Bedford.

With a week to go to finish the 2020 Census, workers are knocking on doors to find people who haven’t replied.


Some are reluctant to answer because they live in an illegal apartment, or because someone in the home is in the country illegally. Others don’t fill out the Census for their seasonal home — which they’re supposed to do.


And some people just aren’t going to troubleshoot if there’s a problem.

 Note: On Sept. 24, after this story aired, a federal judge blocked the Trump administration from ending the 2020 Census on Sept. 30, a month earlier than the original coronavirus extension. U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California issued a preliminary injunction that requires the U.S. Census Bureau to allow responses through Oct. 31. The Justice Department is expected to appeal.

“I haven't received nothing,” said Frances Curley, sitting on her porch in the South End of New Bedford.

She was watching workers replace a piece of sidewalk. She said she would be more than happy to fill out a Census, because she knows it translates into government funding.

“I have children — grandchildren — that go to school,” she said. “And I think all the money should go towards education and, you know, providing something for these children besides hanging out in the street all day. You know, if they have more recreation, we'll have less crime.”

She hasn’t seen a Census worker on her street yet, but just around the corner on the same afternoon, the Immigrants Assistance Center was hosting an event to help people fill out the Census.

Population numbers from the Census determine how many seats we get in Congress and are used to draw legislative districts. But local leaders are emphasizing the money part — the tax dollars allocated by population.

Speaking at the event, Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin said he has an answer when someone questions why non-citizens should be counted.

“And I said, “Let me ask you a question. Do you think they’re really here?’” Galvin said, recalling a time when a man raised the issue. “‘Oh, yeah, they’re here,’ he told me.”

He said he asked the man if those students attended the schools in his town and rode the school buses, and the man said yes.

“I said, ‘Well, do you think that your town should pay for them, or do you think we should get our fair share?’ Well, that was a showstopper. He couldn't come up with the right answer,” Galvin said.

The Immigrants’ Assistance Center is working with the ethnic media and ethnic churches to encourage more people to respond. Caseworkers set up outside after Mass to help people fill out the forms.

Director Helena DaSilva Hughes assures everyone she meets: No, the citizenship question is not on the Census, and every answer is confidential.

“That information is not shared by anyone,” she said. “And if they do, they can actually go to prison. And so that is a very, very important for people to understand.”

Finding those hard-to-count households isn’t just a city problem.

Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have the lowest Census response rates in Massachusetts. They’re at about 30 percent, and Cape Cod is low, too, at 50 percent.

Jeff Behler, regional director at the U.S. Census Bureau, says it’s important for seasonal homeowners to fill out a Census form for each address.

“You just put that zero people usually live or stay here,” he said. “Because part of what the Census does is an enumeration of people, but also enumeration of housing units, because this data is used by realtors and planning agencies, local towns and communities.”

On Martha’s Vineyard, Keith Chatinover is heading up a committee working to raise the low response rate.

“You saw in the data that the Vineyard very quickly fell behind,” he said. “It was pretty much from the onset.”

A big issue on Martha’s Vineyard is the P.O. Box system.

Because nearly everyone needs a P.O. Box to get postal service mail, Chatinover said the Census Bureau didn’t send them the mailing that went to most Americans with a code unique to their physical address.

“Their justification for not sending them to P.O. Boxes was, ‘Listen, the P.O. Box and your residential address are not linked, and therefore sending that code would not be prudent,’” he said.

He wants people to know you don’t actually need that code to fill out the Census — even online.

It takes about 10 minutes at the website my2020census.gov.

And there are just a few days left to get it done.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.