Boston joins other college towns with census challenge

Boston is joining other communities across the U.S. with large numbers of university students in planning to challenge the results of the once-a-decade head count, saying the 2020 census undercounted the city's students as well as jail inmates and foreign-born residents.

Acting Mayor Kim Janey said in a letter to the U.S. Census Bureau this month that city officials believe about 5,000 college students were missed in the city that is home to Boston University, Northeastern University, Suffolk University and the University of Massachusetts Boston. The city made its estimate based on records Boston schools are required to give to the city with addresses for students living off campus.

The 2020 census began just as the pandemic took hold and students were told to leave campuses. The results put the city of Boston's population at 675,647 people.

The county's corrections department estimates that 500 jail inmates were missed, and city officials believe neighborhoods with large numbers of foreign-born residents were undercounted as well, the Boston mayor said.

“Issues such as language barriers and government mistrust, particularly with a possibility of a citizenship question, may have resulted in an undercount of these traditionally difficult populations to count," Janey said.

The administration of former President Donald Trump generated months of headlines by trying to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form before it was blocked by the Supreme Court. Civil rights advocates believe this may have discouraged non-citizens and their relatives from participating in the count of every U.S. resident.

Other college towns across the U.S. , including Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Greenville, North Carolina, plan similar challenges, claiming students were missed.

When the coronavirus pandemic struck the U.S. around spring break of 2020, it set off an exodus in college towns as classrooms went virtual almost overnight. The sudden departure of tens of thousands of students from these communities made it difficult to count them in the census, which began at almost the same time.

According to Census Bureau guidelines, students should have been counted at their college addresses, even if the coronavirus temporarily sent them elsewhere on the April 1 date that provides a benchmark for the census.

Cities, states and tribal nations can start contesting their numbers in January through the bureau’s Count Question Resolution program, but it looks only at number-crunching errors, such as an overlooked housing unit or incorrect boundaries. The program only revises the figures used for population estimates over the next decade that help determine federal funding. The Census Bureau won’t revise the numbers used for determining how many congressional seats each state gets, nor the redistricting data used for drawing congressional and legislative districts.


In her letter, the Boston mayor praised the Census Bureau for doing its best to adjust to the hurdles caused by the pandemic.

“Our desire to have a more accurate population count for Boston does not diminish our appreciation for the valuable resources that the Census Bureau provides," Janey said.


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