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On Tuesday, Boston joined a growing number of cities around the nation that are challenging the 2020 U.S. Census count of their communities, with Mayor Michelle Wu claiming City Hall records indicate the city’s student, foreign-born, and incarcerated populations were undercounted.
According to Wu’s office, research by the Boston Planning and Development Agency suggests the Census count of 675,647 residents is inaccurate.
“Boston deserves an accurate census count across every neighborhood and community,” Wu said in a statement. “This count is the foundation to assess the needs of all of our communities, ensuring that Boston receives crucial federal resources, and it should reflect our full numbers.”
City officials believe the Census count did not include approximately 6,500 students and incarcerated residents, alone, never mind concerns the city has with its household population count and the racial and ethnic classifications of Boston’s population.
COVID-19 evacuations on college and university campuses in March 2020 made for fewer students in the city ahead of the Census count in April that year. Based off of fall 2019 city data, the Census did not count 6,000 additional students, officials said.
Similarly, the city noticed a drop in self-response rates in the household population count, as 15 percent of the city’s Census tracts had a response rate between 30 and 49.8 percent in 2020 — below the 2010 rate of over 50 percent.
“Some of these census tracts with lower response rates either have a large share of off-campus students or foreign-born residents. Off-campus students may have left the city due to universities shifting to remote operations, which would have led to them not being able to participate in the Census’ Non-Response Follow-up activity,” officials said.
“Other census tracts with lower response rates had larger shares of foreign born residents. Issues such as language barriers and government mistrust, in particular a citizenship question and prevalent anti-immigrant sentiment when count was administered, may have resulted in an undercount.”
Records from the Suffolk County Department of Corrections also show that among the city’s two correctional facilities, there were about 500 more people housed in those institutions than reflected on the Census tally, officials said.
In turn, the city has applied for a review of Boston’s group quarters count — based off of the alleged inaccuracies in the student and incarcerated persons counts — through the Post-Census Group Quarters Review program.
Boston has also sent the Census Bureau records from schools and correctional institutions to back up its position the tallies do not accurately reflect the city’s population.
The city’s challenge comes as City Councilor Liz Breadon is seeking Census data from the BPDA to help inform and steer the council’s redistricting process.
Breadon, at the council’s meeting on Wednesday, is expected to formally file a subpoena for the information, including, among other categories, the total change between the 2010 and 2020 tallies; population by race and ethnicity; and population by each of the city’s 275 voting precincts.
Also on that list are datasets now being contested by city officials, such as the group quarters population.
Breadon told GBH News this week, however, the city’s Census challenge will not interfere with the redistricting process, which the council must complete by early November.
“We’re on a very tight timeline,” she said.
Still, Breadon, who represents the college-student centric Allston neighborhood, has her own worries about the perceived undercount.
“I am particularly concerned by Allston’s reported 5.9 percent loss in total population and 40 percent decline in group quarters population, severely impacted by the early pandemic evacuation of colleges and universities,” Breadon said in a statement. “Correcting the count will help inform the needs of our communities and ensure every Bostonian is reflected.”
City Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune said she is “relieved” the city is challenging the count.
“My office met with the Administration early on to sound the alarm on how an undercount would unjustifiably lead to our receipt of fewer federal dollars to tackle issues like housing & education,” Louijeune said in a statement. “It is vitally important that we are getting accurate census data to help ensure we measure what matters, and what matters most is every person.
“Undercounting our immigrant population, our students, and our incarcerated residents is a civil rights issue that we must forcefully address,” she continued. “An accurate count of Boston residents will ensure that all our communities, especially our Black & Brown communities that have suffered from decades of disinvestment, get the resources and attention needed to thrive.”
The city is indeed raising issue around how the 2020 Census denoted race of residents.
That year, the Census reclassified how it collected and processed race and ethnicity data, according to the Wu administration, which asserted the change created large increases in the “some other race” and “two more races” categories “independent of actual demographic or cultural changes.”
“Following this self-reported data on the population’s race and Hispanic origin, the Census Bureau recategorizes this information following prescribed definitions developed in 1997 by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB),” officials said. “This recent race and ethnicity reclassification, paired with the Census’s recategorization process, heavily impacted Boston’s data.”
City officials said the changes resulted in 76 percent of Hispanics in Boston choosing, or being assigned, the “some other race” category or that category combined with other categories as well — well above the 45 percent of Hispanics who did so in 2010.
“Additionally, respondents listing Brazilian or Cape Verdean origin were reassigned by the U.S. Census Bureau to the ‘some other race’ and respondents that stated a Middle Eastern or North African origin were assigned to the White category respectively,” Wu’s office said.
According to officials, there are several implications of the reclassification, including that “multiracial or ‘other’ categories are too heterogeneous to be lumped together for data analysis or policy/program creation.”
“The U.S. Census Bureau must respect how people identify themselves racially and ethnically,” Louijeune said. “The Census must consider simplifying categorization, particularly for Latino, Brazilian, Middle Eastern and North African respondents, to correctly capture our demographics.”
Boston’s Census challenge is one of several launched by cities across the country, including most recently in Memphis, Tennessee, where local officials also claim their residents were underestimated.
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