We’re living through a crisis like nothing we’ve ever faced. COVID-19 struck quickly and paralyzed a country that was woefully underprepared for a global pandemic. Fortunately, our digital age provides us with volumes of accessible data that are being used by public health experts to shape our evolving response to the spread of the virus. But understanding the virus is just one part of responding to these challenging times. How quickly will day-to-day activity in Massachusetts resume, and what safety procedures will that take? Will we return to a society with rampant inequality and social divisions, or will we use this disruption of business as usual as an opportunity to redesign our systems so that they deliver better for everyone? To support planning for an inclusive recovery, we need to analyze other important metrics related to things like racial equity, housing stability, economic hardship and transportation.
That’s where this project comes in. We’re scanning the best available data sources to analyze how our communities have changed since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis in early March. (Since public health experts are covering the dynamics of the virus spread, we focus here mostly on non-virus-related areas.) We’re looking at non-traditional sources like call volumes to the state’s 211 social service call center and road traffic through Mass Pike toll gantries. None of them are perfect, and there’s a lot of other data we wish we had. But taken together these sources paint a picture of how much our day-to-day lives have been altered across a few key domains, which we cover in this initial project launch:
Boston Indicators is leading this research project in partnership with the Center for Housing Data at the Massachusetts Housing Partnership (MHP, leading the Housing section) and with contributions from the Economic and Public Policy Research team at the UMass Donahue Institute (contributing to the Equity Analysis of COVID-19 Spread by City/Town section).
Several themes have emerged from this first round of research. In places, these early themes also lead to big questions about how we as a Commonwealth will respond in the coming months and years, and we’ve flagged some of those below. We’re eager to track these as we continue developing this project.
This is an ongoing research project that we plan to update regularly. We’ll refresh charts and graphs with new data as they become available, we’ll adjust the accompanying analysis as new trends emerge, and we’ll add new sources of data as we find them useful. We know this initial launch includes only some of the relevant data points we need for understanding this crisis. As things progress, we’d love to hear from you about what information and data we might consider adding. We’re all trying to figure this out together.
This data analysis in this section was led by the Economic and Public Policy Research team at the UMass Donahue Institute (UMDI) and was written in partnership with Boston Indicators. UMDI has additional data available online at the Donahue Data Dash, including population share that’s 65+ and per capita income.
COVID-19 has hit hardest many populations and communities that were already among our state’s most vulnerable. For physical health reasons, the virus has been most deadly for people with preexisting conditions, which has largely meant that the elderly are at especially high risk. But Massachusetts cities and towns with more crowding in homes, larger communities of color and larger low-income communities have also seen higher COVID case rates (places like Chelsea, Lynn and Everett). These socioeconomic factors shouldn’t make people more likely to catch a virus, but through a range of “social determinants of health,” physical health intersects with the broader social context in which people live. Many of these lower-income communities of color, for instance, have higher shares of frontline workers (e.g., nurses and grocery store clerks) who risk infection every day by going to jobs providing essential services. These workers often only have access to lower-quality health care, and some have no health insurance at all. Many of these cities are also “environmental justice” communities that for years have suffered from worse air quality, which appears to lead those who do get infected to experience more severe symptoms.
The table below summarizes COVID cases for the 100 largest Massachusetts cities and towns and shows this side-by-side with some select socioeconomic data. Click on column headers to sort.
COVID case rates by municipality can be skewed a bit by the location of large group quarters, especially assisted living facilities, which have been centers of many of our state’s largest outbreaks. Holyoke, for instance, has the 14th-highest COVID case rate statewide, but this high ranking is in part because the Holyoke Soldier’s Home for elderly veterans is located there. The Holyoke Soldier’s Home had the highest number of COVID-related deaths of any long-term care facility in the country. If you subtract positive cases from just that one facility, Holyoke still ranks high, but shifts down somewhat. If you subtract just the resident cases, Holyoke shifts down to 18th and if you also subtract employee cases, Holyoke shifts down to 28th.
It’s important to note that information in this section relies on provisional data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH). There are large gaps in what’s been released, although the quality of data is improving. This analysis focuses on positive COVID-19 tests, which is far from a perfect measure. Recorded cases rely on tests administered. While testing has been limited everywhere, it also has varied widely across communities. While there’s no doubt Chelsea has a large outbreak of COVID-19, part of why its positive test rate so far outpaces every other city is that Mass General Hospital ramped up testing in Chelsea early and operates a clinic there, offering tests to all Chelsea residents who are symptomatic regardless of patient status, health insurance, or immigration status.
Next we look at the relationship between people who have tested positive and other socioeconomic variables through a series of scatterplots. There are high levels of correlation between each of these individual socioeconomic variables and higher COVID case rates. This can make it seem as if each variable on its own leads to higher COVID rates, when this may not actually be the case. Taken together it does appear that these socioeconomic variables help explain significant COVID variation across different types of cities and towns, but it is difficult to determine how much of the impact is driven by each individual factor.
First we look at the share of households in a given community who live in crowded homes. Researchers use different definitions of “crowding” in different contexts. For this project we look at the number of housing units with more than 1.0 occupants per room (including bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens and bathrooms), and we find a very strong correlation with higher COVID case rates (an R value of 0.74).
For a virus that is spread primarily through close physical proximity, it makes sense that we’d see worse outbreaks in more densely populated cities, and this dynamic has been a topic of news coverage as the virus has spread. But the connection between overall population density (residents per acre) and positive case rates is actually not as strong as one might expect. While New York City has had a large outbreak other dense U.S. cities have not yet had episodes nearly as bad. Many Asian cities, some with population density even higher than New York’s, have not experienced the worst outbreaks either.
Multiple people crowding into a given housing unit, on the other hand, is a more precise measure of people living in close proximity to other people, and this measure has the strongest association with higher COVID case rates of any variable we tested. Chelsea, which has the highest COVID case rate also has by far the largest share of residents living in crowded homes, at just under 10 percent of occupied housing units in the city.
Somerville and Cambridge demonstrate the importance of making a distinction between population density and residential overcrowding. They rank first and second respectively among the 100 largest cities and towns in Massachusetts for overall population density, but they shift down to 30th and 27th when using the residential crowding measure. In terms of COVID case rates, neither of them is among the top half of communities, ranking 57th (Somerville) and 80th (Cambridge).
Our findings here are consistent with a similar analysis conducted by New York University’s Furman Center, which looked across neighborhoods within New York City, finding that “COVID-19 is more prevalent in areas where more people reside in crowded units.”
Next we look at the share of a given community that is composed of people of color, which also shows a strong relationship with higher positive case rates (an R value of 0.70). This correlation is particularly strong for communities with large Latino populations (like Chelsea) and Black populations (like Brockton).
There’s also a strong relationship between positive COVID case rates and poverty, although it’s a bit less strong than the relationship with race. Poverty rates by community are available in the table above.
Finally, below we show the share of a community’s workforce made up of frontline essential workers. These employees risk infection everyday going to work as nurses, doctors, grocery clerks and transit drivers. There’s significant overlap between these two categories because a disproportionate share of people working in frontline service jobs are people of color. The correlation between frontline workers and COVID case rates is also quite strong, although a bit less strong than the correlation with people of color.
There’s also a strong relationship between positive COVID case rates and poverty, although it’s a bit less strong than the relationship with race. Poverty rates by community are available in the table above.
This Housing section was authored by the Center for Housing Data at the Massachusetts Housing Partnership.
Rent and mortgage payment collections
Why we're tracking it:
Since the first reported cases in the Commonwealth in early March, COVID-19 has caused major disruptions in all aspects of the housing sector. Across Massachusetts construction has slowed to a trickle, eviction and foreclosure moratoria have been enacted, and hundreds of thousands of people are worrying about how to afford rent or mortgage payments in the months ahead. Confusion abounds around how much federal and state support struggling households have access to or might eventually get, what forbearance and repayment terms might look like from landlords and lenders, and who will be stuck with the tab when all this is over.
In the short run, the enactment of eviction and foreclosure moratoria will help to keep people in their homes, but there has been a major disruption in the ability to pay for housing. As households struggle to balance rent and mortgage payments with food costs and other basic necessities, two questions dominate: 1) How will people manage missed or partial payments? 2) Will households be expected to repay those amounts as soon as the moratoria end?
Note: The housing data in this project will support the development of a reimagined "2020 Greater Boston Housing Report Card," to be launched in June 2020.
The change we're seeing:
We have not yet seen comprehensive state and local data on rent collections, so for now we will rely on national surveys to give us an idea of these impacts. April rent payments provided a preliminary glance at how the pandemic has impacted the ability of renters to make their payments (or partial payments) for the month at the national level. According to a new rent tracker from the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC), while April collections started off lower than in March, by the end of the month most renters were able to make at least a partial payment on their rent. Rent collections for the first 3 weeks of May show a continuation of this stability, with roughly 91 percent of renters already having made their May rent payment. It is likely that unemployment assistance, federal stimulus and other supports have mitigated much of the anticipated decline in rent collections for these first months of the crisis. It remains to be seen how rent collections might be impacted if these emergency measures are reduced or discontinued.
Additional survey data from Apartment List provides a cross-section of May payments for different types of households. Similar to the NMHC data shown above, this survey found roughly 22 percent of renters were unable to make any payment at all so far this month (versus 20 percent for NMHC). Furthermore, the Apartment List survey found that inability to pay housing costs among homeowners was very similar to that of renters. As the month progresses these collection rates are likely to increase. Additionally, lower-income households are more likely to have made a partial or no payment.
The Apartment List survey also shows that most households could cover only one or two months of housing costs if they were to lose their job (72 percent of renters and 54 percent of homeowners). Only 28 percent of renters and 46 percent of homeowners in the survey said they could cover three or more months of housing payments. This indicates that as the pandemic and its associated economic impacts extend, we will likely see higher rates of partial and non-payment. It also indicates that many households do not have emergency savings. The likelihood that most families could repay past due rent and mortgage payments may be relatively low without the continuation of sufficient financial support.
Why we're tracking it:
The recent enactment of an eviction moratorium on April 21 is helping to keep people in their apartments if they struggle to make rent payments. The eviction moratorium includes protection for tenants who were already at risk of being evicted prior to the pandemic. However, the moratorium is only in effect until August 18, or 45 days after the end of the state emergency (whichever comes first). For more details on the intricacies of this law, visit the Department of Housing and Community Development’s (DHCD) COVID-19 website or the Massachusetts Legal Help website. Additional legislation or policy interventions will likely be needed to prevent a surge in evictions after legislative interventions phase out.
The change we're seeing:
New eviction filings have decreased dramatically since the start of the crisis, from about 750 new cases in the first week of February to just a handful of new cases in the first week of May. The decline in new cases dropped significantly starting in the week ending March 20, and following the enactment of the eviction moratorium on April 21 virtually no new evictions have been filed. While some cases opened in earlier months remain active, the number of cases being suspended due to COVID-19 continues to accrue. Future trends will depend heavily on the continuation of eviction protections as well as financial support for tenants who may be facing months of past due rent payments once the moratorium ends. If policy makers fail to plan for this, it is likely that we will see a surge in evictions for non-payment once these protections expire.
Prices and transactions
Why we're tracking it:
The pandemic and economic crisis hit the United States right as the housing market was entering its busiest season. It is not yet clear if the suspension of construction activity will further exacerbate the metro Boston region’s housing supply gap, or if home sale prices will decline. Even potential homebuyers and renters who have the resources to move might delay or forgo entering the housing market due to the degree of uncertainty in their future economic outlook.
The change we're seeing:
There have already been significant swings in the for-sale market, with data for April 2020 indicating a significant decline in activity. Compared with the trajectory of the market in the three prior years, April saw an unseasonal uptick in the number of days homes spent on the market and a dramatic decline in the number of new listings statewide. These shifts have been accompanied by an atypical decrease in listing prices between March and April both in the Boston metro area and Massachusetts statewide.
There has not yet been a marked change in rent prices since the crisis began. April rent levels appear relatively stable at the Boston metro, statewide, and national levels.
Faced with a fast-growing public health crisis and woefully inadequate national pandemic preparation, we did the right thing by shutting down huge swaths of our economy that relied on face-to-face interactions. The painful consequence has been massive job losses that for several weeks straight have broken every record set before this crisis hit. So much so that graphs of weekly unemployment claims have literally jumped off the charts.
The graph below compares weekly unemployment claims in Massachusetts all the way back to before the onset of the Great Recession. As this striking visual shows, claims for every week during the COVID crisis dramatically outpace every prior week. Total claims for the week ending March 28 were more than eight times higher than during the peak of the Great Recession. This data is for Massachusetts, but the shape of this graph looks almost identical for the country as a whole.
While weekly claims have declined from their late-March peak, the nearly 45,000 unemployment claims for the week ending May 9 are still more than two times as high as any single week during the Great Recession. Unfortunately, all of these claims across the course of the pandemic amount to a staggering Massachusetts unemployment rate of 15.1 percent in April - .4 percentage points higher than the United States as a whole.
Compounding the pain is the fact that many people who lost their jobs first during this crisis are people who were already in high-risk categories to begin with—e.g., lower-wage workers and undocumented immigrants with limited access to critical public supports. By far the largest job losses over the past five weeks have been in in Food Service & Accommodation and Retail, sectors that tend to be made up of lower-wage service jobs.
That said, Massachusetts is seeing job losses across all industries. It’s striking that over 100,000 people working in Healthcare & Social Assistance have filed for unemployment. At first blush, this seems like one sector that would be more sheltered from immediate risk of job loss, but even hospitals are laying off workers who are not on the front lines of responding to COVID-19. Most elective surgeries have been postponed and other health sectors like dentistry and chiropractic have shut down except for emergencies.
The data in the graph to the right reflects traditional unemployment claims and not additional claims for the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program created through the recent federal recovery law. The PUA program covers people like gig economy workers and the self-employed. The Department of Labor reports that more than 370,000 additional people have filed for this unemployment program. When these are added to traditional unemployment claims, more than 1.2 million Massachusetts workers have filed for unemployment over the course of this crisis, an absolutely staggering number.
Another way to visualize the economic impact of the COVID crisis is by looking at data from OpenTable on the number of people eating meals at restaurants in its network (either through reservations or walk-ins). The graph below compares this data for a given week in 2020 to its equivalent week in 2019. Restaurants fully closed in Boston and Massachusetts roughly four days before those nationwide. Stay-at-home orders covered most of the United States for all of April, and so there was basically no one dining-in at any restaurants all the way into May. Starting on May 1, however, there’s been a steady uptick in seated dining numbers nationwide as states have gradually started reopening.
On the earlier end of the graph, these data show that in-restaurant dining had actually plummeted well before states ordered restaurants closed. In Massachusetts, for instance, the number of seated meals began dropping in early March, a couple of weeks before Governor Baker actually ordered restaurants closed for in-person dining, which occurred on March 23. As debate grows around when to “reopen the economy,” this is important context to bear in mind. States can allow restaurants to open, but they can’t force people to patronize them. The fact that seated meals plummeted nationwide even before stay-at-home orders were in place suggests strongly that restaurant going will only ever rebound to pre-crisis level when people feel safe enough to do it (and if they are economically secure enough to have sufficient disposable income). Further, the first phase(s) of partial reopening is almost certain to include provisions prohibiting restaurants from operating at full capacity in order to maintain physical distancing. While seated meals will remain at zero in Massachusetts until restaurants are allowed to reopen, we’ll be eager to track the rate at which this measure ticks upward after that.
The Harvard-based research center Opportunity Insights just launched a new Economic Tracker that combines widely-used public data with real-time economic data from a variety of private sector sources not usually available to the general public—e.g., data from payroll processors, financial service firms and e-commerce outlets. Taken together they facilitate more real-time monitoring of the effects of the COVID crisis nationwide and down to the metro level.
The Tracker launched in early May, so we will continue to revisit this data over time. For now, their available data reveal a few key themes. The economic slowdown has been dramatic and widespread across a range of dimensions including employment rates, hours worked, job postings and a few others. The graph below shows small business revenue in Greater Boston compared to the country overall. Small business revenue dropped sharply everywhere, as the rapid closure of the economy has been especially challenging for smaller firms. But while revenue has increased across the U.S. as some states have begun reopening, the graph shows that with greater virus spread and stricter lockdowns, Greater Boston and Massachusetts have been hit harder than much of the rest of the country. As of May 13, small business revenue in Greater Boston was down almost 68 percent compared to early January.
There’s a small hint of good news across a couple of measures, suggesting that early April may have been a low point. Total consumer spending, shown below for instance, has rebounded somewhat since April 1.
To see interactive presentation of these graphs and others, go to the Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker online.
COVID-19’s public health and economic impacts have grown in parallel since about mid-March, leading to increased demand for social services and public assistance programs. Many public agencies are scrambling to meet this growing demand while at least partially administering these critical programs through new remote systems, so for them making real-time data available has been an understandable challenge. One way to get a sense for how much greater this need is, though, is by analyzing the volume of calls made to the state’s 211 call center, which is administered by the United Way. The call center connects people with public or private programs that can answer their questions or fill their needs—ranging from help applying for rental assistance to finding subsidized daycare slots for their kids.
The graph above compares call levels for the eleven-week period covering the onset of the COVID crisis in 2020 with the equivalent twelve-week period between March and May 2019—overall call volume has more than doubled, with concern about food showing a disturbing 528 percent increase (from 630 food-related calls over this period in 2019 to just over 4,000 in 2020). With hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents losing their jobs, calls related to employment and income are also way up.
Most of the calls to the state’s 211 center came during the early weeks of the outbreak, as residents struggled to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and find support – food, housing, unemployment insurance - for the situations in which they suddenly found themselves. As people have become more accustomed to life during the pandemic, calls have gradually decreased – though they remain more than twice as high as 2019’s weekly volumes.
Applications for State Public Assistance Programs
The state has also begun releasing some data on applications received for state-administered public assistance programs. Demand for these programs tends to increase as families face greater economic hardship. In the weeks preceding the emergency declaration here in Massachusetts, applications for these programs hovered at a little over 5,000 per week. As the COVID crisis took root over the course of March, applications surged. Many people lost work and applications for these three key programs—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) and Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled and Children (EAEDC)—totaled over 20,000 per week by the end of March. During April, new applications for these programs fell from the March peak, but they’re still more than twice as high as their pre-crisis levels.
SNAP is by far the largest of these programs. It functions as an entitlement, meaning that the federal government must provide necessary food support to all families that meet eligibility qualifications. Recent federal recovery efforts have expanded SNAP in several ways in order to help this critical food support go further:
Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) is administered by Massachusetts under the federal Transitional Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grant. It is not an entitlement and so funding is limited. The federal response to COVID-19 has not included any provisions around TANF thus far. However, there are state policy proposals for boosting TAFDC payments here in Massachusetts.
Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled and Children (EAEDC) is a state program that delivers aid to people in Massachusetts who are disabled or caring for a disabled person, elderly, or children who are unable to receive TAFDC aid.
Some of the best available real-time data we have measures transportation and mobility patterns across Greater Boston. For the most part these measures show dramatic reductions in movement out of people’s homes, as people are largely obeying state-at-home orders. In a weird way, the way one should interpret these measures has flipped; during normal times, we generally like to see high levels of mobility and travel, signaling vibrant communities and a strong economy. Now, though, we want mobility to be low so that we are minimizing the risk of spreading the virus.
This data will actually get more interesting to track whenever the strictest stay-at-home orders are phased down, which may begin over the coming weeks. Even though physical distancing guidelines haven’t markedly changed in recent weeks, however, some sources suggest that transportation-related activity has already ticked up a touch. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack recently cited a separate dataset measuring vehicle miles traveled at the county level showing that road travel during the first week of May was a bit higher than it was for the last week in April.
When formal stay-at-home orders are gradually lifted, we’ll be able to track more directly the pace of return to “normal.” Will our transportation patterns ever return to what they were before COVID-19? If so, how long will it take? Will advocates of urban redesign succeed in using this period of unprecedented disruption to shift more of our city streets away from cars to make them more pedestrian-friendly? Is there a risk that road traffic actually worsens beyond the terrible levels we experienced before the crisis, due to heightened concerns around traveling in close proximity to others on public transportation? Perhaps expanded remote work partially offsets what would have otherwise been an increase in road traffic? Might more commuters choose to walk or bike, where possible? At this point, no particular path forward is pre-ordained. This moment provides an unprecedented opportunity to rethink the status quo, but how things ultimately change will depend upon the decisions we make collectively as a Commonwealth.
First, we look at MBTA ridership above, which shows declines of more than 90 percent on almost every line since the governor declared a state of emergency on March 10. For a typical workday, this equates to a loss of roughly 800,000 riders – with losses felt most acutely on the Silver line, serving Logan Airport. Though Blue Line ridership dropped somewhat less than the other lines, with a higher number of frontline workers living in or near East Boston, it has since fallen precipitously as the MBTA conducts repairs between Airport and Bowdoin. Nevertheless, subway ridership as a whole has ticked up just a touch from low points that were hit throughout April.
To analyze road traffic we look at weekly data from toll gantries along the Mass Pike for four regions of the state going west to east (Westfield to Allston). The graphs measure the rate of vehicles per hour heading eastbound at 15-minute periods across all weekdays. There’s a lag in the release of this MassDOT data, but for now we can look at how much traffic had reduced through May 1. Across March and the first two weeks of April, we see a sharp decline in traffic volumes, by 50 to 75 percent. Beginning in the third week of April however, we begin to see a slight uptick in traffic, much as we do for ridership on the MBTA in the graph above.
These data show significant regional variation, with the smallest drop-off occurring at the Westfield gantry – 47 percent in early April, and 43 percent by May 1. A larger portion of traffic in this part of the state is made up of trailer trucks, many of which are still operating, and residents have fewer transportation options in these less densely populated parts of the state.
The further east you go, the sharper the drop, with the biggest decreases occurring during the first two weeks of April. At Charlton, between Worcester and Springfield, traffic was down by 56 percent between March 2 and April 10, but is down only 49 percent by May 1. Likewise, between March 2 and April 10, traffic fell 73 percent at the Allston gantry. Volumes have recovered slightly since then, now Allston has a slightly smaller decline of 70 percent from March 2.
Also striking is how much the rush-hour peaks have flattened across these four graphs. What used to be large spikes at the beginning and end of the typical workday are now much less pronounced as the regular rhythm of weekdays has largely been upended.
Activity at Logan Airport had slowed dramatically as well. In April 2019, Logan served more than 3.5 million passengers. This April, Logan's served just under 100 thousand passengers - a year-over-year decrease of more than 97 percent. The drop for Logan passengers in April 2020 vs April 2019 mirrors almost exactly a 95 percent drop for air travelers nationwide.
Freight volume is down “only” 30 percent because in some cases airlines have shifted more to freight in order to continue business.
Airport traffic may be one of the slower measures to rebound after society opens up. A large share of flights are somewhat non-essential—either vacations that can be totally forgone or business travel that can be substituted by phone calls and video conferencing. According to one industry survey, for instance, 40 percent of passengers say they plan to wait at least six months after containment is over before flying again.
Through a trove of cell phone GPS data, Google has unique (sometimes troubling) access to data on our personal lives. It has made topline data available during the COVID crisis through regular releases of Google Mobility Reports. The data is available for counties, states and countries worldwide and gives us a sense for how much different sorts of otherwise regular activity has declined.
Nationally, the most significant decreases in mobility have occurred at retail and recreation establishments and workplaces, and Massachusetts residents appear to have limited their activity more than the national average. Within Massachusetts, Suffolk County has ramped up social distancing more than the state as a whole.
Time spent in residences has increased by about 14 percent in Suffolk County, but only by 9 percent nationally. Trips to parks are much more variable. Recently, Massachusetts residents appear to be visiting parks more than people nationwide, with the exception of Suffolk County.
International comparisons are also pretty interesting. The United States has adopted more physical distancing than Sweden, which has gotten lots of attention for not imposing strict lockdowns across the board. By contrast, physical distancing in the U.S. is lower than in Italy and the United Kingdom, both countries that have had worse outbreaks so far.
The United States Census is the oldest regularly recurring data-gathering exercise in the world. It provides invaluable information about who makes up our large, diverse country, and it helps us analyze how we’re changing over time. Since it won’t happen again until 2030, results from the 2020 count will have decade-long implications for how particular communities are represented in government and for how hundreds of millions of federal dollars are distributed across Massachusetts cities and towns. For more detail, see Boston Indicators’ report Census 2020 Explained: How It Works and What’s at Stake for Massachusetts.
Online self-response for the 2020 census went live on March 12, two days after Governor Baker declared a state of emergency. Having the census emphasize online responses for the first time this year has provided a useful mechanism for households to fill out their forms even while socially isolating at home. But even though the first wave of the 2020 count is happening online, a core strategy for getting a complete statewide count has always involved proactive door-to-door outreach to support households that nonetheless do not fill out their form online.
Reacting to the unique challenges posed by COVID-19, the Census Bureau extended the response period by 3 months to October 31. In addition, every operational timeline has been extended. Field offices with openings scheduled for March 1st have been delayed. Some select locations have since opened on May 4, while many other offices remain scheduled for later openings. Non-response follow-up has been extended to the end of the self-response phase, and a number of other timelines have been extended, including for group quarters and other enumeration processes. There is currently no date for a count of the homeless (originally scheduled for April 1), as the Bureau works with partners to determine a new timetable. Processing of data for political redistricting purposes has been pushed back to May 1, from January 1, 2021.
So far, census self-response rates are growing steadily. While Massachusetts is on track for a higher response rate than the U.S. overall, we are still below our self-response rate for the 2010 Census, at 68 percent.
Looking at statewide response rates, however, obscures large differences within Massachusetts. Lower-income communities, especially those with large immigrant populations that speak a variety of different languages, have tended to have lower census response rates. The table below shows the 20 Massachusetts communities with the lowest self-response rates as of May 25. Many gateway cities, in particular, are on this list—the state defines Gateway Cities as communities with populations between 35,000 and 250,000 and with educational attainment rates and incomes lower than state averages. A range of socio-economic challenges contribute to these lower response rates, but this year may be especially challenging in wake of the Trump administration’s attempt (albeit unsuccessful) to add a citizenship question. While this question was not ultimately included, it’s quite possible that the effort itself is still having a chilling effect leading to depressed response rates, particularly in immigrant communities.
Perhaps most troubling is the fact that Chelsea has both the state’s single-highest coronavirus infection rate and also the lowest self-response rate. Chelsea’s response rate of 45.1 percent is nearly 17 percentage points below the state as a whole.
Without doing effective real-time organizing work over the coming months, there’s real risk that financial support and political representation for these lower-income communities will suffer over the coming years.
Separate from administration of the decennial census, the Census Bureau also administers several other survey initiatives—like the American Community Survey—to get more regular data on activity across the country. In response to the COVID crisis, the Census Bureau just launched two new experimental surveys to measure the social and economic impact on small businesses and households in more real-time. While many of the data sources included in this COVID Indicators project track similar things, few if any of the organizations have the scale and resources of the Census Bureau, so this new survey is very promising. We will track responses as they are released and likely analyze them going forward.