Advocates angry, saddened by sudden end to census count

  • A briefcase of a census taker is seen as she knocks on the door of a residence Tuesday, Aug. 11, in Winter Park, Fla.  AP Photo/John Raoux

Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 27, 2020

HOLYOKE — A Supreme Court decision Tuesday has effectively ended the 2020 census count, meaning that Pioneer Valley residents have until Friday morning at 6 a.m. to fill out their own census questionnaires.

Local officials decried the Supreme Court’s decision, which comes amid the coronavirus pandemic, as well as efforts by the Trump administration to keep undocumented immigrants from being counted. The administration had challenged in court an Oct. 31 deadline to finish the census, and now the nation’s highest court has halted the count as those challenges play out.

Data from the census is used to direct federal and state resources and congressional representation to communities. Now, the abrupt end to counting has ruined plans laid by local organizations striving to make sure those census data are as accurate as possible.

“I am deeply troubled by the Supreme Court’s decision to end the census count early as it threatens our communities’ ability to receive the funding and representation they are entitled to,” U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said in a statement. “Without an accurate count, allocation of funds for cities and towns will be considerably less, especially in hard to count communities where individuals rely on federal assistance the most.”

Holyoke is one of the communities with a large number of residents who are considered “hard to count” — for example, racial and ethnic minorities, low-income households or renters. One of the organizations doing outreach to those communities is OneHolyoke Community Development Corp., which has now had to scrap plans to phone bank in the final two weeks before what the organization thought the deadline would be.

“Those lost days meant our strategy was undermined, and of course we’ve lost the last couple of weeks to continue on the effort,” said Michael Moriarty, the executive director of OneHolyoke CDC. “Clearly this was not helpful.”

Moriarty said it isn’t possible to know now what the effects will be in Holyoke, but he noted that the city is as much as 8% behind the 2010 total of people who self-responded to the census. He said that the pandemic hindered outreach efforts early on, and that the sudden end to counting undermines the counting in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

That, in turn, affects the education funding, health care dollars and other resources that the federal government will direct toward Holyoke in the next decade, Moriarty said.

“The stakes are pretty high because we live with them for 10 years,” said state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst.

Self-response rates were smaller in cities such as Holyoke at 63.6% and Springfield at 61.7%, and in rural communities such as Goshen at 57.8% and Huntington at 60.2%. Amherst also had a lower self-response rate than other neighboring communities: 66.8%.

Domb said Amherst has a substantial immigrant population that may be undercounted in the census. She said the story of the 2020 census can’t be told without highlighting President Donald Trump’s attempts to include a citizenship question, as well as his plan to exclude undocumented immigrants from population totals.

“I think it’s horrible that the administration from the very get-go has been trying to reduce and limit the count in all sorts of ways, and basically generate an inaccurate account that supports its politics,” Domb said.

Javier Luengo-Garrido, the coordinator of the Immigrant Protection Project with the ACLU Massachusetts, said he views the administration’s efforts as “terror tactics” meant to keep immigrant communities from participating in the census. His organization worked with others doing outreach to undocumented immigrants — partnering with social service providers to check in with families about the census, for example.

“It’s difficult because every single time that we start doing this — and we were really intentional about reaching out to these hard-to-count communities — the government would come with something else trying to get people not to participate,” he said.

Now, counting will end early and suddenly, with a deadline of 6 a.m. EST on Friday. Luengo-Garrido said that follows a pattern by the Trump administration, and that he worries about the effect on immigrants and minorities who have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If the resources in those communities are already low because they are undercounted, imagine when we have to face another pandemic,” he said. “Imagine when we have to face a different kind of emergency.”