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With Weeks Until Census Deadline, Cambridge Races to Collect Responses

The census response rate for Middlesex County currently sits at 74.3 percent.
The census response rate for Middlesex County currently sits at 74.3 percent. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Taylor C. Peterman, Crimson Staff Writer

As the country adapts to the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic and the response deadline for the decennial U.S. census closes in, the self-response rate for Massachusetts sits just under 70 percent.

In Middlesex County, where Cambridge is located, the self-response rate is slightly higher at 74.3 percent. In Suffolk County, which includes Boston and Allston, it sits just under 60 percent.

Daniel M. Riviello, co-chair of the Cambridge Complete Count Committee, said the challenges associated with the 2020 U.S. Census have not been limited to the pandemic.

“The 2020 census, in general, is complicated for a whole host of reasons,” Riviello said. “Right off the bat, it was complicated by the kind of back and forth over whether there would be a citizenship question added or not. I think that made a lot of people very uncomfortable with it — just general distrust in government.”

“And then COVID was just an even larger curveball that we weren’t expecting, which made it difficult to do any in person outreach for several months,” he added.

Riviello said the City of Cambridge has been able to adapt its outreach programs to the unprecedented conditions of the pandemic, even though it has not been able to pursue typical avenues.

“Through working with our partners and nonprofits and others on the ground, who are really still engaging with their audiences as much as possible, we’ve still been able to, I think, get the word out and try to get as many people to respond as possible,” Riviello said.

Riviello said, in the remaining weeks, the city’s focus has been on continuing to encourage people to fill out the census online and answer their doors for enumerators, in addition to working with federal census representatives to ultimately achieve a higher overall response rate.

Because of its large population of college students, Cambridge has also been working with local universities to ensure students are counted properly.

“People should be counted, or should count themselves, where they normally reside on April 1 2020,” Riviello said. “With COVID hitting right around that time, it made it difficult for students who would have been living off campus to fill out their census in Cambridge.”

Brigid O’Rourke, a spokesperson for the University, wrote in an emailed statement Harvard has worked with the U.S. Census Bureau and stakeholders in the Cambridge area “to support an accurate and successful census count.”

“Given the challenges COVID-19 presented to census efforts as many students returned home, Harvard most recently worked to fulfill the U.S. Census Bureau’s request to capture additional census data for students living off campus,” she wrote in an email to The Crimson.

Sarah E. Gallop, a spokesperson for MIT, wrote in an emailed statement that MIT’s approach to outreach was “very straightforward.”

“MIT decided (as a result of conversations with Census officials) to provide so-called “Directory Information” for its students and other campus residents directly to the Census – it was as simple as that,” she wrote. “In March, we provided name, address, home address (US only), and birthdate which is all permitted under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).”

Sebastian Zapata, the senior analyst and Census liaison for the City of Boston, wrote in an emailed statement he is working with the director of Harvard’s First-Year Urban Program to make census outreach a part of the Global Day of Service.

"I’m working with Varsha Ghosh, Director, Student Engagement and Leadership & Director, First-Year Urban Program to engage with up to 100 Harvard students via the Class of 2024's Global Day of Service taking place on 9/12,” he wrote.

“During the Day of Service, we will conduct a massive phone bank to connect with Boston residents and have a conversation with them about the importance of participating in the U.S. 2020 Census. We hope to make a total of 5,000 calls,” Zapata added.

Correction: September 11, 2020

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Sebastian Zapata is the deputy director of state relations for the City of Boston. In fact, he is the senior analyst and Census liaison.

—Staff writer Taylor C. Peterman can be reached at taylor.peterman@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @taylorcpeterman.

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