Census results ‘encouraging’ as Berkshire county diversifies and population loss slows | Local News
Over the past 10 years, Berkshire County’s non-Hispanic white population has plummeted, while the region has gained black, Asian, Hispanic, and multiracial residents.
Berkshire County still ranks among the whitest areas in Massachusetts, with just under 85% of all residents identifying as non-Hispanic white, according to new census data. Additionally, the county experienced the largest population decline in the state in the past decade, a loss of approximately 2,000 residents, or 1.7 percent of the population.
But people who have been studying the data for years and pushing the county to become more inclusive of diversity say the census results are welcome news.
The population loss is significantly less than the decline of 5,000 to 10,000 residents that local and federal predictions had shown, said Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire.
“There was a decline, but it wasn’t as dramatic as we feared,” Butler said. “I think when you look at this data you are looking at a bit of a plateau in our demographic decline and a more diverse audience being drawn to the Berkshires and wanting to live here. … This represents something encouraging.
Over the past decade, the county’s Hispanic population grew 56%, from 4,530 to 7,064. This means Hispanic residents now make up about 5.5% of the county’s population, up from 3.5% ten years ago.
Berkshires’ black and non-Hispanic Asian populations have also increased, 22 and 25 percent, respectively, although both groups remain relatively small fractions of the county’s population. The area gained about 700 black residents and 600 Asian residents, according to the census.
The Native American and Alaska Native population, including those who identify as Hispanic, has increased slightly, while the tiny Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population has dropped.
Meanwhile, the non-Hispanic white population shrank by nearly 10,000 – that was a loss of more than 8% – although demographers warn that the decrease includes a shift towards multiracial identification fueled by changes in the census itself.
The number of people identifying with two or more races has more than doubled in the Berkshires, and the county has seen a similar increase in the number of people identifying with “another race”.
Analysts say the increase in the number of multiracial people in the country is likely caused by a variety of factors, including actual demographic changes as well as changes in the census. This would mean that part of the multiracial population growth in the Berkshires marks a real increase, while an unknown fraction marks a reclassification.
Rachel Marks, head of the racial statistics branch at the Census Bureau, told The New York Times that changes to the bureau’s form and processes have helped the rate of people identifying as multiracial rise, but she doesn’t did not quantify the magnitude of the changes. impacted the final figures.
Demographers and census experts have also warned that the process may have undercounted people of color. The interruption of door-to-door outreach by the coronavirus pandemic and former President Donald Trump’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the census may have reduced turnout among historically undercounted groups.
In the Berkshires, data collection also likely missed much of the relocation effect of the pandemic, as census forms asked people to report where they lived on April 1. Mark Maloy, of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, points out that many pandemic arrivals, temporary or permanent, would have been counted in other regions.
“Anyone from New York who moved here and decided to make their permanent residence here, that happened after April,” Maloy said. “The increase in home sales, all of this happened after this data. It may take years, even a decade, before we really know the impact of COVID on our population.
Berkshire County’s loss of 1.7% of its population marked a much smaller downturn than in previous decades, when each census showed a decline in population of around 3-4%. Forecasts by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission had estimated a much larger decline in population by 2020.
“Some people will look at the data and say, ‘We keep losing population,'” Butler said. “But those of us who have been close to the data over the past decade can look at it from a very optimistic perspective. Our population decline appears to be potentially leveling off.
Butler attributes the slowing in population loss to many factors, likely including an increase in available jobs, especially compared to the years following the Great Recession, and an improved quality of life in the Berkshires.
“We’ve seen a resurgence of Great Barrington, the revitalization of Pittsfield and North Adams, other communities coming back to life,” he said. “The volume of things to do in the Berkshires is very different in 2021 than it was in 2004, and I’ve lived here during that time, so I can talk about the change in momentum.”
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Berkshire County’s increase in diversity has lagged the state: the county’s share of non-Hispanic white resident population has increased from 91% in 2010 to 85% in 2020, while in the Massachusetts, the same group went from 76 to 68 percent of the population.
“Eastern Massachusetts is a lot more urban, with a lot more ethnic cultures and more colleges that draw people in,” Maloy said. “We will always be behind the state. We are more rural, and more rural areas tend to be whiter.
In the Berkshires, the shrinking white population likely reflects the reality of county demographics – an aging white population and growing diversity among the younger population.
“Look at the schools in Pittsfield,” Maloy said. ” The percentage [of the student body] which is non-white is large enough. A lot of the older population, the ones that died in the last 10 years, may have been white…whereas I think a lot of births increase our diversity.
Census age data and other demographic information has yet to be released.
Proponents also say the numbers are a sign that the most marginalized groups feel comfortable responding to the census.
Michelle Lopez, executive director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center, says she thinks Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – the US immigration policy that has gone into effect since the previous census – has helped many immigrants to feel safe answering the forms.
She says the work done by Berkshire County’s Full Count Committee, led by Maloy, likely also helped boost response rates. The committee went door-to-door, participated in English classes and worked to build trust in the census, including letting people know they didn’t need to disclose their status of immigrants.
Lopez also thinks the county has become an easier and more welcoming place for immigrants, with an abundance of services available, including free English classes.
“I think a lot of it is immigrant family members who are already brought here by immigrant family members,” she said. “They say, ‘This is a safe place to live.’ It’s probably the word we hear the most from immigrants telling us why they chose to stay in the Berkshires.
Butler suggested that employers have made progress in improving hiring practices to increase diversity, while being more welcoming and providing better training, which could help attract or keep people of color in the region.
“We certainly still have a lot of work to do, but I think there has been a lot of progress over the past five years,” he said.