As the 2020 federal census approaches, Berkshire County’s representatives are highlighting its importance.
The impact of the 24th United States Census – which begins in March – will be felt all across the Berkshires and on a number of political, economic, and cultural levels. As the county’s State Senator, Adam Hinds, puts it, numbers matter.
“When we’re looking at our state funding formulas, people often look at the numbers," he said. "And when we’re talking about the money that we receive from the federal government, it’s based on numbers.”
For the county’s largest community – the city of Pittsfield and its roughly 43,000 residents – that number gets a lot more specific.
“For every person that is counted, I believe there is over $2,000 in federal funding available," said Pittsfield City Clerk Michelle Benjamin. “There’s over $23 million set aside for Massachusetts, so we want to get as large of a portion of that funding that we possibly can to help the residents of the city of Pittsfield.”
She says multiple city offices are coordinating to organize for the count, with support from the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, state representatives, and the state.
“The secretary of the commonwealth’s office is very involved and trying to have every community in Massachusetts work together to get a real accurate count,” said the clerk.
Democratic State Representative Paul Mark of the 2nd Berkshire District represents six communities in the county and 10 in neighboring Franklin County. He’s keeping an eye on how the census will impact the region’s political representation. Every state’s congressional presence is directly tied to its population.
After the last round of redistricting, Massachusetts lost a Congressional representative.
“There’s been a lot of growth around the state, and the growth is mostly based in Boston and in surrounding communities, and while that’s good in terms of congressional reapportionment, because of the growth that we’re experiencing over the past eight, nine years, it looks very likely if we count accurately and correctly, we’re not going to lose a congressional seat,” said Mark.
But it’s a different story outside of the state capital.
“When you talk about the growth out here in Western Massachusetts, it’s either very slow growth, stagnation, or in some places, even decline," said the state rep. "So it becomes very important that – even in decline – we have to make sure that every single person out here is counting and taking part in the census, because we don’t want any decline or stagnation to be any more pronounced than it needs to be.”
Mark believes districts in Western Massachusetts will grow geographically due to the shrinking population.
“Which means the number of people we’re going to represent is going to be more, which means the number of communities we’ll need to take on in our districts is going to be larger, and more communities, and so making sure that we count accurately should help protect us, help make sure that our voices don’t get diluted and help insure that our districts aren’t any bigger than they need to be,” said Mark.
Hinds, who represents 52 different municipalities now, says he’s feeling the strain already.
“My district, my state Senate seat in Massachusetts is the size of the state of Rhode Island," said the state senator. "And every expectation is it will continue to grow.”
Brooke Mead is the former executive director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center. She notes that the county’s immigrant population, which accounts for the county’s only recent population growth, has been historically harder to count, and thus is frequently underrepresented.
“With the immigrant community, one of the ways that funding is received for things like interpretation or translation or for more culturally competent services through the federal government is by the census, counting how many people of different races – and there’s definitely a thing to check language as well," said Mead. "So it’s really important for us to be able to talk about this growing number and substantial number of immigrants who are in the county.”
Despite some fear among immigrants about drawing attention to themselves, Mead says advocates wouldn’t promote the census if they thought participating in it would be harmful.
“This information is not going to end up, for example, with immigration enforcement," she told WAMC. "We have been assured of this a number of times.”