Census politics

Mass. population growing, and the key is immigration

THE LATEST CENSUS population figures are out, and Massachusetts is keeping pace with national population growth. The state’s population grew to nearly 7 million people at a rate of 0.6 percent between July 2017 and July 2018. That’s the same rate as the nation as a whole.

It’s also the fastest rate of growth in the northeast, putting states like New York and Rhode Island more at risk of losing representation in Congress after the 2020 Census. (The Wall Street Journal has a good explainer on  which states would gain or lose seats based on the latest numbers.)

There are important political implications to how, and where, Massachusetts is growing. As Secretary of State Bill Galvin noted in announcing the figures, Massachusetts’ growth should be enough to maintain its nine Congressional seats and 11 electoral votes “as long as we have a fair and accurate count”.

That caveat is a less-than-veiled reference to the Trump administration’s attempts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. (Pew has a good primer on the controversy.) A Brookings Institute analysis estimated that 24 million residents could be intimidated away from taking the Census by the citizenship question. The Census Bureau’s own research found that 1 in 4 worried that their answers to 2020 Census questions could be used against them. This, of course, was the whole point, according to private communications among Trump officials and allies.

The status of the citizenship question matters to Massachusetts in particular because much of our population growth is coming from international in-migration. The inflows of new residents from other countries more than offsets our loss of residents to other states. But those foreign-born populations are exactly the residents who could be spooked by a citizenship question on the Census. If they are shy to answer, Massachusetts could end up with an artificially low tally in the official 2020 census. That’s why Maura Healey is among the attorneys general suing the Trump administration over the citizenship question, saying its addition would make the Census less accurate and jeopardize the Commonwealth’s federal funding and political representation.

Even assuming Massachusetts holds onto its nine seats in the US House, where the state is (and isn’t) growing could make for some uncomfortable redistricting for two of the delegation’s most powerful members. The Census hasn’t released county-level figures yet, but it’s safe to assume that the pattern from last year largely holds: The bulk of the state’s population growth is happening in Greater Boston. (The UMass Donahue Institute has a nifty dashboard illustrating the point, using last year’s county-level numbers.)

Incoming Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal and Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern represent the state’s four westernmost counties, which have a markedly lower population growth than Greater Boston, even over a smaller base population. (McGovern also represents Worcester county, which is growing faster but not as fast as Suffolk county.)

A reshuffling of districts to achieve population parity might mean some carving up of Neal and McGovern’s territory to give each representative some more of the faster-growing parts of the Commonwealth. And if a citizenship question on the Census does depress Massachusetts’ official count, one logical place to consolidate would be out west.

Meet the Author

Richard Parr

Research Dir., MassINC Polling Group
As we await a resolution of the citizenship question, Reps. Neal, McGovern, and the rest of the delegation have immigrants to thank for helping the state keep pace with the rest of the nation.

Richard Parr is the research director of the MassINC Polling Group.