Massachusetts must ensure census ‘counts’


The data collected by the US Census Bureau every 10 years is used to draw voting districts and determine how much funding to give states and municipalities. The bureau is woefully underfunded, still without direction — except to deliberately undercount our population, has dispirited staff, is on the precipice of collapse, and its constitutionally obligated objective is destined to fail. We can’t let it.    

Put on your 2020 X-ray vision glasses and see our state with a serious undercount of its citizens, without hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funds, and perhaps the prospect of one fewer member of Congress. The roads you travel, schools built, student books and supplieselder services, public health infrastructure such as water, sewage, waste treatment, municipal electricity, even flu shots are dependent on the data detailed in the census. A true Census count is a constitutional obligation and it is imperative to protect the very nature of democracy itself to conduct an accurate census. 

The Supreme Court provided hope that a fairer and fuller count could yet happen by staying the citizenship question from immediately advancing. Now with President Trump’s final admission of defeat on that matter it is still far from certain a fully fair and complete count will take place. Not only because of the damage already done about inclusion of that question but from the systemic failure of Census planning itself. A couple of months ago our very capable Secretary of State William Galvin started the one-year countdown for Massachusetts. He has put together a plan to conduct his third decennial census with a host of outside advisors and assistance. But the federal investment and commitment to a full and fair count remains a woeful circumstance that makes the job exceedingly and unnecessarily difficult.  

As an intern in then-state Sen. Barbara L’Italien’s office I crafted original research that will help ameliorate the lack of US Commerce Department commitment to a full and fair count. That office filed the “2020 VISION BILL,” since updated and refiled by state Sen. Rebecca Rausch. It establishes the Massachusetts Census Equality Task Force to make certain we count all state residents that the purposely underfunded Trump effort is designed to ignore, including residents of shelters; immigrants, both documented and undocumented; residents who do not speak English; veterans, and individuals with disabilities.  The task force will execute a statewide public awareness campaign by educating the general public of the necessity to ensure a complete and proper count while also investigating barriers to proper counting of all residents. The task force will ensure what a responsible nonpolitical federal Census should – unlike this cycle of deeply politicized self-interest by an administration that intends to create “trumped down” numbers that will purposefully disadvantage Massachusetts.   

This vital service of population counting is not normally contentious. Partnership programs, partnership specialists and coordinated community relations are an integral part of an effort that places known and trusted community organizations and community leaders in league with the Census Bureau in order to increase mail response, be a bridge to enumerators, improve accuracy and reduce the undercount. Partners have included diverse groups from Walmart, Latino churches, to Cambodian social clubs. In 2010 the Census had relationships with 4000 Partnership Specialists. The current Federal funding request is for only 43, a cut of nearly 99 percent! Massachusetts alone was estimated to have 240 Partnership Specialists. It will likely have zero.  These vital and proven partnership programs need to be replaced, even if with state funds.  

Moving Forward For Massachusetts Equality 

Massachusetts can and should position its economic leverage and technological skills to advantage its citizensState legislators have sworn an oath to fulfill the mandate of the Constitution. This legislation fulfills that obligation. The Commonwealth’s attorney general could choose, and the Legislature should urge that office, to seek proper execution of the census effort, demanding fulfillment of President Trump’s constitutional duties. Another hope is that the election of a Democratic-controlled US House of Representatives could restore funds ensuring a true and accurate count – if an all too Trump compliant US Senate chooses to do the unlikely right thing and support a more appropriate funding model.  

There is a lot at risk. Over 210,000 undocumented individuals live in Massachusetts. That is the equivalent of five state House districts and nearly two state Senate districts. The inevitable undercount of these and other individuals makes it certain that Massachusetts will have a deficit of funding and deserved representation for all citizens – a right guaranteed by the US Constitution.  It is estimated that 25 percent of the state budget comes from Federal funds – nearly $11 billion. Extrapolated over the next decade, over $110 billion is at risk.  

It is an outrage that there is obvious political manipulation of certain geographies and constituencies. The Census should not be a political tool of the White House to limit influence of “unfriendly populations.”  Those “unfriendly populations” are our neighbors and constituents – and they count. The unfortunate use of this historic requirement of the Constitution as a lever of political power is unprecedented and undemocratic. The games must stop.  

Meet the Author
Celia DiSalvo is a fellow at the Fielding Center for Presidential Leadership Study and is a 2019 summa cum laude graduate of Gettysburg College with honors degrees in public policy and political science.