April 7, 2010 | Boston Globe | Original Article

Cities Straining for Census Returns

The pace of life may be leisurely in tiny Bernardston, a sleepy town in Western Massachusetts, but residents are anything but slow when it comes to filling out their census forms.

As of Monday, the town had the highest census return rate in the state, according to the US Census Bureau. Nearly 80 percent of the town’s 2,100 residents have mailed their forms in.

Meanwhile, census officials in Boston and Lawrence are struggling to break the 50 percent participation mark.

Tomorrow, Boston city councilors will stand at T stations at rush hour to urge riders to mail in their forms. City and state officials will also campaign on behalf of the once-a-decade survey at churches and community centers.

It is a meaningful exercise: The Brookings Institution estimates that Massachusetts is likely to receive more than $2,000 in federal aid for each person who fills out the census. But the communities that most need the money are often the slowest to respond.

“It’s much harder in urban areas than in suburban areas’’ to get people involved, said Boston Councilor Felix G. Arroyo, chairman of the Special Committee on the 2010 Census. “That’s why we’re campaigning for the census like it was a candidate. We need to get Boston residents to vote for the census.’’

Many wonder if the city will be able to top its 2000 participation rate of 59 percent. A poor census showing could lead not only to decreased federal funding but elimination of a couple of congressional seats in Massachusetts. The federal government uses the census to determine the official size of the US population and decide state funding for a variety of programs related to schools, health care centers, housing agencies, and more.

According to the data released Monday, many rural areas in central and western Massachusetts had some of the highest census participation rates. Statewide, the return rate stood at just over 60 percent and counting.

Secretary of State William Galvin, the state’s designated census coordinator, said language barriers and public safety problems have affected census counts in Boston.

“Boston is a particular concern, I will acknowledge that right now,’’ he said. “On Dudley Street, participation is very low.’’

Galvin said he is also worried about low participation rates in Everett, Chelsea, and Lowell, all of which have large immigrant populations that may not have legal citizenship.

Holly St. Clair, who tracks census data at the Metropolitan Regional Planning Council, said cities such as Boston and Lawrence face the same hurdles as in the past, including counting hard-to-reach immigrant populations who fear deportation.

There are also new challenges, she said, like tallying college students, who generally communicate electronically, not by snail mail. Getting an accurate count of residents in neighborhoods hit hard by foreclosure is also problematic. Foreclosure victims often have moved in with relatives or friends, making it hard to track them down.

Census participation in Lawrence, for example, is currently at 46 percent, with only a little more than a week left to return the form. Although April 1 was the official deadline for mailing census forms, the US Census Bureau said residents have until mid-April to be counted. On May 1, the agency will begin sending workers door to door to count people and families who have not returned their documents.

“I think the state is going to be challenged to have a complete count,’’ St. Clair said. “There are a lot of communities where the census doesn’t feel relevant.’’

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has said the census has routinely undercounted Boston’s population, most recently in 2007, when it issued population figures he said were 20,000 short and forced the city to sacrifice millions in federal funding and possible private investment.

Each state’s census tally will also determine the number of congressional seats apportioned to the state, which may also affect a state’s allocations. A significant population decline could cost the state a seat or two.

“In many ways, this is a race against other states,’’ said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Beckwith said the rain of recent weeks has not helped boost returns, but said Boston’s outreach effort will be a model in terms of large US cities.

At the moment, Boston’s 47 percent participation rate is behind similar-size cities, such as San Francisco (55 percent) and Atlanta (50 percent).

Towns like Rochester, a zero-stoplight enclave in southeastern Massachusetts, are helping push Massachusetts’ return rate up.

Nearly three-quarters of Rochester’s 5,400 residents have returned their census forms. Naida Parker, the town clerk, said residents view the census as a pleasant civic responsibility.

“They’re very concerned,’’ said Parker. “In Boston, you don’t know who your neighbors are half the time, and it’s one more piece of junk in your mailbox.’’