The 2020 census will begin its count this April, but on the South Coast, Cape Cod and the Islands, efforts are already underway to address hard-to-count populations. At stake are tens-of-millions of dollars in federal funding for Massachusetts.
In New Bedford, Helena da Silva Hughes of the Immigrant Assistance Center has been trying to spread the word to New Bedford residents who may not speak English very well. This effort has been conducted largely through New Bedford's Portuguese-language media, like the region's oldest Portuguese-language radio station and the Portuguese Times newspaper.
Da Silva Hughes says she and advocates are putting a particular emphasis on outreach to the Portuguese and Spanish-speaking populations in the city this time around. This is because during the last census, many suspect that New Bedford suffered an undercount of its population.
"We know, especially in New Bedford, that we have a very large undocumented population, and we know that that's a population that is growing," Da Silva Hughes said.
Census numbers are used to calculate federal funding levels for towns, and this money is used to fund schools, road maintenance and social service programs, among others. DaSilva Hughes says that New Bedford lost out on a lot of money ten years ago.
"We know that our city was undercounted. It said we had close to 95,000, and we know that it's a lot more than that," she said.
She said for the census to reach this population, sometimes advocates need to get creative and identify barriers to information faced by those who don't speak English well.
"Of course social media is very important, but I would say for the hard-to-reach immigrant populations, especially the ones that have very low literacy skills, they still rely on radio and television," Da Silva Hughes said.
Nantucket is also trying to tailor outreach efforts to its changing population. Andrew Vorce, the head of the Complete Count census committee there, said the island has seen a dramatic increase in its immigrant population in the past ten years.
"It's definitely grown. It's reflected in our school population. And it's various immigrant groups, too. It's not one single group," he said. "There's a definite diversification of the population here that we need to make sure we're outreaching to."
One particular challenge to getting a correct count is addressing the worry some undocumented immigrants have about filling out a government form. Even though there isn’t a citizenship question on the census, as some conservative groups had been pushign for, Vorce said his office had been hearing concerns.
"I do think there's still a fear factor, there's some justifiable fear that their information is going to be abused by the federal authorities," Vorce said. He added that his census committee is looking at partnering with leaders within the island's immigrant communities to gain trust and spread the word.
And on the Cape, advocates are looking at a numbers problem. The Cape population of about 214,000 people puts the region right on the low edge of a category of funding that could impact how much it gets for emergency disaster planning or affordable housing.
"There are a number of federal programs that use 200,000 as a threshold number," David Still of the Cape Cod Commission said. "We don't think we're at risk of dropping below 200,000, but that's something we want to be aware of."
During the 2010 census, Cape Cod experienced a significant loss in population as a result of a new census rule that stated that children attending college should be counted in the town they attend college in, and not their hometown.
Back in New Bedford, the Immigrant Assistance Center has also been encouraging members of its Portuguese and Spanish-speaking population to apply as census workers, as another strategy to reaching hard-to-count immigrant communities. New Bedford resident Ceuma Rosa speaks both Portuguese and Spanish, and she had applied to be a census taker. She said she hoped she would be able to do outreach specifically in neighborhoods where a lot of Portuguese-speaking residents live.
"Some people just don't open the door because they don't speak the language, there could be a family that might have some people undocumented," Rose said. "I'm hoping to just make people comfortable enough that they can contribute the information that they can share with us."
Outreach efforts in the Cape, Islands and South Coast region will be stepping up in the next few months - with events like census question-and-answer sessions and mass census events to encourage people to be counted. The official census count will take place on April 1st, 2020.