The state could lose millions of dollars in federal funding over the next decade if the upcoming 2010 U.S. census results in an undercounting of residents.
Census data is also important because it is used to determine how many seats a state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In the 2000 count, the Census Bureau estimated that there was a net undercount of 3.3 million people, representing a rate of 1.18 percent. Black and Hispanic populations were undercounted at higher rates, at 2.2 percent and 2.8 percent, respectively, compared to a 0.6 percent undercount for white residents, according to the U.S. Census Monitoring Board.
As a result, the bureau is stepping up its outreach in many areas, particularly those where there are significant â€œhard to countâ€ populations such as non-English speaking residents, immigrants, minority groups, and college students.
In Boston, the bureau has opened an office on the campus of Roxbury Community College that is in addition to the South Boston office opened last year. The bureau also plans to hire staff this year to work with community organizations in getting the word out about the importance of the Census.
â€œThe data is used to distribute congressional seats and thatâ€™s power for Massachusetts and our communities,â€™ said Bruce Kaminski, deputy director for the Boston region. â€œAlso, the federal government distributes about $400 billion in tax money every year to states and communities. Itâ€™s important that everyone gets counted so we get our fair share of federal dollars.â€
Population data drives the allocation of federal support for programs like Medicaid, health outreach, transportation, public housing assistance, community development block grants, special and vocational education, schools, affordable housing and more.
For every person not counted, the community loses about $1,230 in funding.
Following the 2000 census, PricewaterhouseCooopers, an accounting and services firm, released a report estimating that the undercount that year could result in a loss of more than $4 billion in federal funding for 31 states over the next decade.
In Massachusetts, which experienced an undercount of 0.76 percent, the report estimated that missing those people caused the state to lose $10.2 million in federal funding.
Next year the questionnaire will be the simplest ever, with only 10 questions, Kaminski said. It will be mailed to every household by March and expected to be mailed back by April 1. If not, in the following months, census workers will reach out to households that didnâ€™t respond.
While the process may sound simple, there are obstacles.
â€œIn Boston, college students and their living arrangements can be an obstacle, especially those living off campus,â€ Kaminski said. â€œSomeone may pick the form up and fill it out thinking the other students will get their own form. Sometimes parents want to count their children even though that child is living at school for most of the year.â€
Some residents may be fearful that the information will be shared with other agencies.
By law, information given on the Census form is confidential for 72 years and cannot be shared with other agencies.
â€œWe are not the IRS or the INS. We are there for the good of the community,â€ Kaminski said. â€œIf someone is an illegal immigrant, they should rest assured. We wonâ€™t ask them if they are a citizen or not. Some people may also be living in an apartment that, according to the tax rolls, should not be there. But that doesnâ€™t matter to us.â€
There are also challenges for those residents who may not speak English or who may be new to the country.
This year for the first time, the Census Bureau will mail bilingual forms to households in areas where there are high concentrations of Spanish-speaking residents, Kaminski said.
In addition, the forms will be prepared in four other languages â€“ Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean â€“Â that will be made available to appropriate parties. They wonâ€™t be part of a mass mailing. And the census will open up temporary questionnaire assistance areas to help people fill out the form with resources in dozens of languages.
There can be cultural barriers as well that may affect whether people fill out the form or whether they include all family members, Kaminski said. â€œCertain people may have more mistrust than others based on history. The mistrust of government is there but it is usually found more with recent immigrants from countries that had a different philosophy of what a census means,â€ he said. â€œFor example, in some countries it could be dangerous if someone was not a member of the right [political] party.â€
To educate residents with information from people they know and trust, the census is hiring partnership specialists to work with community groups. This year, they will have 75 full-time specialists. In addition, they will be adding 150 part-time partnership assistants to help in this area, Kaminski said. (For more information about jobs, call 1-866-861-2010.)
Outside organizations are also partnering with the Census to help reach community and faith-based organizations in â€œhard to countâ€ populations.
Boston wins another challenge to count
Underscoring the need to improve the counting process for the upcoming 2010 Census, the city of Boston announced this week that it successfully won its fourth consecutive census challenge. The U.S. Census Bureau informed city officials that in response to the challenge, they raised the cityâ€™s July 2008 population estimate to 620,535 up from the original estimate of 609,023.
The city had submitted the challenge because it believed that the total should have been 630,384.
â€œProviding accurate information and analysis is critical to our economic climate. Iâ€™m happy to see that the Census Bureau has accepted part of our challenge and revised its population estimate for Boston,â€ said Mayor Thomas Menino said in a statement.
The city will send a letter to the bureau asking them to further correct the amount before it begins work on the 2009 population estimates, according to the statement.
Â The challenge contended that the Census Bureau did not fully account for all of the adaptive reuse housing, over-counted the number of housing demolitions, and failed to reflect the correct percentage of population of Suffolk Ã‡ounty, the statement said.
For every person not counted, the community loses an estimated $1,230 in local funding, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Â During the 10-year period from the last Census, the bureau releases annual population estimates. The research division of the Boston Redevelopment Authority conducts the research on how those estimates were calculated, said BRA spokeswoman Jessica Shumaker in an interview.
Census officials indicated they would look at the calculation for the Suffolk County population as they work on the county estimate for 2009, which will be released in March 2010, according to Greg Harper, a demographer who works on the state challenges.