Advocates gear up so everyone counts in census

  • This March 23, 2018, file photo shows an envelope containing a 2018 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident as part of the nation's only test run of the 2020 Census.  AP FILE PHOTO/MICHELLE R. SMITH

Staff Writer
Saturday, February 08, 2020

AMHERST — Fears of interacting with the federal government may keep both recent immigrants and undocumented people living in the region from participating in the decennial census.

In spite of these worries, Margaret Sawyer, co-director of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, says getting an accurate count should be viewed as empowering to the people who often live in the shadows, but who may be working at local restaurants and on local farms.

“We see the census as a power-building tool,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer’s organization is coordinating a census street team and explaining how participating in the count can help immigrants’ children’s futures and the communities in which they live. It’s one of the entities throughout Hampshire and Hampden counties working to make sure everyone is counted during the 2020 census.

At a kickoff event Friday morning for the Pioneer Valley Complete Count Initiative at Amherst Town Hall, which was followed by a similar conference at Holyoke City Hall in the afternoon, several speakers explained why the census is crucial and what is already being done.

Patrick Beaudry, spokesman for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, said the goal of the commission’s effort is ensuring an accurate count of people who make their homes in the region.

Census Day doesn’t come until April 1, but households should begin receiving notices and forms in the mail in March. Households that don’t respond in a timely fashion, either by mail or the internet, will see follow-up actions, including home visits, which will take place from April to July.

State Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, who represents the 3rd Hampshire District that includes Amherst, Pelham and Precinct 1 in Granby, said the census determines how political power, representation and money are apportioned.

Estimates show the region will lose $2,372 per person per year for anyone not counted, she said.

“The census becomes one of those key things, not just about how we draw congressional districts,” Domb said.

In her previous job as executive director of the Amherst Survival Center, census data gave her information about how to serve people.

“Undercounted means underfunded and invisible,” Domb said.

One of the reasons Friday’s morning session was staged in Amherst is because the town is considered the ninth most difficult in the state to count, mainly because it’s home to many immigrants and college students.

“We have communities that are afraid to come forward and be counted,” said Amherst Town Council President Lynn Griesemer.

Like the Workers Center, part of the job of getting in touch with the underrepresented will be done by the Center for New Americans, where Executive Director Laurie Millman said programs in Amherst, Northampton and Greenfield help immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

“We will educate, we will assist, we will outreach,” she said.

Millman’s agency will be recruiting volunteers to help people fill out census forms, and some of the naturalized citizens who have come through the program in recent years will become ambassadors.

Vatsady Sivongxay, statewide coordinator for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition’s complete count effort, said she is identifying challenges and barriers to getting an accurate count. Limited broadband in rural areas is one of the issues she will focus on.

Even some students may not want to be counted, with Amherst having a bylaw limiting each dwelling to four unrelated roommates. Both the University of Massachusetts and Five Colleges Inc. are coordinating outreach to them.

Tony Maroulis, executive director of External Relations and University Events at UMass, said strategies are being unveiled to reach the 14,500 undergraduates who live off campus.

Vince Jackson, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, said information from the census helps businesses connect to customers, clients, employees and vendors, and aids with such decisions as where to open and how to market.

“At the end of the day, we all want a prosperous community,” Jackson said.

A similar point was made by Jim Ayres, vice president for programs and strategy for the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts. Ayres said the census provides data about where to invest dollars to have the most impact.