Accuracy, citizenship, politics to play role in 2020 census in Massachusetts

Hide caption U.S. Census Bureau regional director Jeff Behler (center) helps kick off the 2020 Census process in Massachusetts, along with Quincy Mayor Thomas P. Koch (left) and City Clerk Nicole L. Crispo on Jan. 8. [Greg Derr/The Patriot Ledger]

Wicked Local

Here we go again.

The 2020 U.S. Census, a decennial headcount of every person living in the United States, is still a year away. But local, state and federal officials in January officially kicked off the process in Massachusetts.

“When people think of the 2020 census they think about just counting numbers, but we’ve been working on this now for three years,” said John Barr, census program manager at the Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth. “It’s so important that the groundwork is done.”

The census first started in the 18th century and is required by the U.S. Constitution. It was originally designed to determine how many representatives each state would send to the U.S. House of Representatives. And while it still serves that purpose, the census has become far more complicated over the last two centuries.

Today it represents a wildly important, highly controversial and politically charged process, exacerbated most recently by a growing mistrust in government and its respect for privacy. The 2020 census is already embroiled in a legal debate over a citizenship question added by President Donald Trump’s administration.

The question, which asks if respondents are U.S. citizens, has sparked pushback from immigrant communities and advocates, who are concerned the information could be used against marginalized communities in the future.

Jeff T. Behler, regional director of the U.S. Census Bureau based in New York, is adamant the information collected by the census is private and protected, saying he’s personally liable to serve up to five years in prison and to be fined up to $250,000 if the information is illegally released.

He wouldn’t comment on whether the citizenship question adds any value to the census, but Behler told Wicked Local that mistrust in government was already a challenge before the question was even introduced.

Population growth in Massachusetts over the last decade means the state isn’t likely to lose a congressional seat once the census count is complete in 2022. Other states, however, are not so lucky. According to U.S. Census estimates, the following states could lose districts once the census is completed: Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia.

“Mistrust and distrust in government is one of the biggest things we have encountered,” Behler said. “In this environment, there’s a much more elevated distrust in government than what I’ve seen in the past.”

The mistrust could translate into lower participation in the census, especially among immigrant communities, which is concerning to local and state officials.

“Anything that discourages or causes fear in filling out the census only hurts all of us…

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