Counting our Communities

In less than a month, each household around the country will receive a letter from the US Census Bureau, inviting every person living in the US to participate in the 24th decennial Federal Census. After respondents answer 12 basic questions such as their name, sex, age, and race, the Bureau will determine funding services and government representation that will affect the everyday lives of all US residents.

Without an accurate count of the nation’s diverse communities, local, state, and federal funding for health care, public schools, affordable housing, Section 8 vouchers, Medicaid, language access, childcare, senior services, roads, and public transit, won’t make it to the communities who need services most.

The Census Bureau has historically neglected working class communities of color. Within Massachusetts and across Boston, neighborhoods such as Chinatown, East Boston, Roxbury, and Dorchester are consistently undercounted. This cycle, in which an estimated $16 billion of funding is at stake for Massachusetts will determine whose lives will be counted for representation for the next 10 years. 

Beth Huang, director of Massachusetts Voter Table, a grassroots coalition of community organizations in Massachusetts, has worked with over a hundred community-based groups in hard to count census tracts throughout Massachusetts. Many of these trusted organizations provide social services and help non-English speakers file taxes, apply for affordable housing, or acquire legal aid. Organizations have begun setting up census assistance centers—or as Huang calls them, Census 2020 “office hours”—to replace some 30,000 census questionnaire service centers that were established for the 2010 Census, but have not been established due to budget cuts for this year’s Census. 

Census budget cuts under the current administration have only compounded fears and misinformation circulating within many vulnerable and undercounted immigrant communities—many of whom have never experienced a federal decennial census before. In particular, fears and misinformation about the Census in the current political climate persist despite federal judges striking down Trump’s proposed citizenship question on the 2020 Census.

Caroline Wolinsky, the founder of Tufts Census Action, a student-run organization mobilizing  the Tufts community for the 2020 Census, explained that even providing accurate information to address people’s privacy concerns may spread fear, such as hosting an event to dispel fears about the citizenship question. “Just seeing that kind of event would make you think that there is a citizenship question,” Wolinsky said. “And the whole point is to make the Census more accessible and stress how confidential the data is and how important it is to be counted.”

Daniela Carvajal, an organizer at Centro Presente, which is based in East Boston and serves Latin American communities across the state, noted similar challenges. In addition to campaigning for the Census, CP also runs a Know Your Rights Campaign meant to protect vulnerable immigrants from law enforcement regardless of citizenship status. Although CP has previously cautioned community members against divulging personal identifying information to strangers and officials, the Census asks for exactly that. 

If a household does not respond to the initial Census invitation sent out in March, Census enumerators then follow-up in person to collect the data—which could feel similar to unsolicited and possibly threatening law enforcement visits. “You’re asking them to share information about their families… [But] if you’re not expecting anyone to come to your house and you just hear a knock on the door, you think, ‘Is that ICE?’” Carvajal said. 

Activists in MVT’s network use local knowledge about their communities to ensure everyone is accounted for. “I think the political climate has been really challenging,” said Huang. “And I think the way that we’ve responded is to train trusted messengers in low-income communities of color to share accurate information about the 2020 Census, and share why the Census matters to our daily lives for the next ten years.”

The Chinese Progressive Association, a community organization based in Boston Chinatown that partners with MVT, responded to issues of accessibility and misinformation specifically facing the Chinese community in the Greater Boston area. Winnie Chen, a service administrator at CPA, noted that 2020 Census’s language and technological accessibility has been a major challenge for CPA’s constituency. 

With the Census responses moving online for the first time and the Census’s initial “invitation” letter only offered in English and Spanish, CPA’s elderly and predominantly monolingual Chinese-speaking members will face difficulties getting themselves counted this year. This year, CPA has begun planning educational workshops with management in subsidized housing where elderly Chinese in and around Chinatown live. Rather than begin educational programming early in the year, programming will start after the Census Bureau sends the initial invitation letters so that the elderly do not forget to fill out the Census online. 

Despite challenges, the Census is also an opportunity to better understand people’s everyday needs and to collaborate between organizations across political differences. In the past year, CPA has built support among and beyond its constituency for progressive policies such as data equity and rent control. But for the Census, CPA has collaborated with business and family associations—organizations that don’t often support its progressive platform. 

Chen explained that every year from late January until early April, Chinatown’s 20 to 30 family and business associations hold banquets that gather leaders and residents from across the community. CPA has used these gatherings to spread the word about the federal census, rewarding grants to Chinatown organizations committed to Census outreach. “2020 Census has been a great opportunity for CPA to reach out and strategize with groups we don’t normally work with,” said Chen. “The census itself is not—or should not—be a divided issue.”

Beyond issues with undercounting, an often overlooked issue regards representation for incarcerated people. Prisoners are counted towards the communities at the location of the prison, but they have no voting power. As a result, the places that gain voting power from counting their incarcerated population only benefit residents of the surrounding area, which tends to be wealthier, whiter, and more rural. 

“If I could have done it all over again, we would have made [this] an issue back in like 2016,” Huang said. “Hopefully after this federal census, and in the 2021 to 2022 legislative session, we will end prison gerrymandering in Massachusetts.”

In contrast, students who are counted by the Census as residing in their college towns or cities use many of the same services that long-time residents use: local roads, businesses, and housing. The burden on community resources increases as nonprofit and tax-exempt institutions like Tufts continue to increase student enrollment and displace local housing. An accurate student count is just one step to ensure that both longtime and student residents receive proportionate allocations for community resources.

Armani White, a Roxbury resident, Democratic State Committee candidate, and member of Reclaim Roxbury, Coalition for Truly Affordable Housing, and Right to the City Vote, added that college students can play significant roles in supporting local organizations that are working to make the Census more accessible to hard-to-count communities. “College students have a lot of free time, and sometimes a lot of resources or friends and family with resources. Redirecting those resources to surrounding communities can be a powerful thing,” said White.

Reaching out to the Group of Six student centers, language departments, and cultural and language housing, TCA has worked to recruit multilingual students to become enumerators in communities in which English is not the preferred language. Not only does this make communication logistically easier, Wolinsky added that this language skill can be a sign of cultural competency or similar lived experiences that foster more trust between the doorknockers and residents and that language level doesn’t need to be a barrier against getting involved.

“They ask what level of language proficiency you have but I don’t think it has to be very high, because you have a really set list of questions,” said Wolinsky. “So it’s awesome for college students because it’s a really good opportunity to actually practice the language you’re learning.”

Wolinsky also stressed that framing the importance of the Census must be sensitive to the real fears many people have. While many may not trust the federal Census Bureau’s official materials, studies show that underrepresented communities are more likely to answer the census when people in their own community encourage and provide them resources that are specific to their community.   

Community organizations have established these trusted relationships. Tufts Census Action has begun to connect students with local immigrant and refugee advocacy organizations like those in the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition. Alongside MVT, MIRA has partnered with MassCounts, a coalition of trusted community organizations mobilizing undercounted people across the state to fill out the 2020 Census. According to Wolinsky, students and TCA best serve communities outside of Tufts when supporting these existing efforts. “[Individuals] know their communities best and what their specific needs are,” she said.

The distribution of resources is discussed in every election year to improve working people’s everyday lives, but not always with gratifying change. This year, communities across Massachusetts will continue the fight for services such as housing, healthcare, education, and transportation. “[In 2020] there are so many important opportunities for people of color and working class people to claim our power,” Huang said. For this critical year in US politics, the Census is one opportunity that allows us to actualize the changes we hope to see in our communities.