It’s Not That Simple:  Be Counted, It IS That Simple

State funding also uses federal census numbers to allocate grants. So having an accurate count of our town’s population is crucial to having programs adequately funded.

If the solutions were easy, there wouldn’t be problems.

This column is a companion to the WSBS-AM radio show, “It’s Not That Simple.”  (Listen to the podcast here.

We look at issues facing Great Barrington and explore the question, “why don’t they just fix it?” 

We discuss the complexities, the competing interests, the less obvious costs or consequences, and the missing information that explains why It’s Not That Simple.

We do our best to steer clear of opinion and to just point out the issues that make the problems more complex than they might appear.

Although we both serve on elected town boards, we are not speaking for those boards or for the town in any capacity. We are only representing ourselves on the radio show and in this column.

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When was the last time you read Article1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution? Hint: It’s the part that describes the House of Representatives. Need another hint? House seats are apportioned to the states based on population. Got it now?

Article 1 Section 2 requires a census every 10 years so that we know how many House seats each state gets. If you have read it at all since high school, chances are you read it in 2010, at the time of the last census. It’s 2020 and time to read it again. Here are the relevant parts:

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. [The clause in italics was superseded by the 14th amendment to the Constitution.]

“The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”

You learned in high school that the first meeting of Congress was in 1789. The first census was the following year, in 1790, and there has been one every 10 years since then. That first census counted just under 4 million people.

The original purpose of the census was to determine power distribution among the states and the way those states would be taxed. It was about voting so it mostly counted only those who could vote. “The views of who counts has evolved over the last couple of centuries,” said our guest on the program, Mark Malloy of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. “Back when the country was formed, it was about male voting rights. But now it has evolved to include everyone alive. It is the only 100 percent count of the population we have.”

It matters how many of us live here because that is what determines our representation in Congress. After the 2010 census, Massachusetts lost a representative in the U.S. House and the congressional district that was Berkshire County merged with congressman Neal’s district. State representatives’ and state senators’ districts are also based on census data.

Important as voting and congressional representation were, and are today, the census determines a host of other things, mostly financial. Census data directly affects how federal dollars are allocated to states and municipalities covering everything from transportation and infrastructure to food assistance. Annually, approximately $675 billion of federal funds are distributed based on census numbers for programs like Medicare and Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), federal highway money, educational Pell grants and Head Start, library grants, and many others. That comes to about $2,700 per person. On top of that, state funding also uses federal census numbers to allocate grants. So having an accurate count of our town’s population is crucial to having programs adequately funded.

Is it fair to distribute federal aid based on population? Does it make sense that sparsely populated rural communities which have as many, if not more needs, than urban communities do not get as much funding as densely populated regions? The census only looks at population numbers, so more sparsely populated regions such as New England will not receive as much funding as the country’s metro, but that’s a question for another show.

If it’s so important that we count everyone, can we assume everyone will be counted? If past census estimates are correct, the answer is a resounding NO. “Historically, the data shows us that roughly 20 percent of Great Barrington does not respond [to the census]. National and local trends show an increasing number of people that do not respond,” Malloy noted.

Fear and distrust of the government and general apathy contribute to the undercount which affects us politically as well as financially. It is imperative for everyone in the county to be aware of the upcoming count and to be attentive to mailings from the Census Bureau providing instructions on who to register.

If it’s so important, what is being done to make sure everyone is counted?

“Around the second week of March, people will receive a letter in the mail asking them to go online to the Census Bureau’s website, 2020census.gov, and complete the survey online,” says Malloy. This is the first year the census is online so getting counted is even more convenient than in past decades.

For those of us who fail to register after the initial mailing, there will be a second reminder by mail, and then, for anyone who still hasn’t responded online, a third reminder by mail. If the Census Bureau still hasn’t received your online survey, a fourth reminder, which will include a paper survey, will come through the mail.

A fifth and final reminder will be sent out at the end of April to anyone who hasn’t completed the survey. If they still don’t hear from you, a Census worker will come knocking on the door sometime between the beginning of May through August. The survey is also available by phone.

Post office boxes will not receive anything from the Census Bureau. Areas that are primarily served by post office boxes will have forms dropped off at their door by the Census Bureau.

We know it is easy to answer the census, but is it safe? If you have been telling the IRS that you spend most of your time in Florida, but you really spend most of your time in the Berkshires, can’t the IRS find out?  Even more frightening for some, if you are an undocumented immigrant, will Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) find you?

Malloy reassures us: “Title 13 of the U.S. Code restricts all census data to the Census Bureau. It is illegal for the Census Bureau to share that data with any other agency. Census employees are sworn for life that they can’t release this data. The individual data does not get released for 72 years; only aggregate data is released.”

Malloy stresses that the online survey has been tested extensively for security breaches and he attests to its security. There is no reason to fear that census information regarding personal information such as immigration status will be shared in any way.

So if your driver’s license is in Florida, if you pay your taxes with a Florida address, if you vote in Florida, but you spend most of your time in the Berkshires, it is safe to be honest on the census form.

Expect questions such as name, age, gender, race, Hispanic origin (since it is not considered a race) and primary country of origin. These questions become crucial when congressional districts are redistricted since every attempt is supposed to be made to create a racially balanced district. Also, expect a question about household distribution as well as questions accounting for household size that includes people who are part of the household but not living permanently within the house, such as college students.

“The one thing we would like to stress is the census access points,” says Malloy. “That would be your libraries, senior centers and Town Hall. There will be publicly available computers there for people to respond to the census.”

So go out there, perform a Constitutionally mandated civic duty, and get counted!

The data will be compiled through August and by the end of December the Census Bureau must provide the President the data to be delivered to Congress January (2021). Local data will be released throughout 2021.

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Is there an issue you’d like to discuss on the show? Have comments about this or previous episodes? We invite your contribution of topics and concerns that may be of interest and that might seem simple to address. Maybe there IS an obvious solution we haven’t thought of, or maybe It’s Not That Simple. Email your suggestions or questions to NotThatSimple528@gmail.com, or find us on Facebook. Next Show: February 28, at 9:05 on WSBS, 860AM, 94.1FM, Your Hometown Station.