Op-Ed: As Census Arrives, Count Everyone, Especially Children

The 2020 Census forms will start arriving in mailboxes around the country this March, launching the once-a-decade effort to count every person living in the United States. 

Children are consistently the most undercounted demographic in the census. In fact, in the 2010 census an estimated 2.2 million children under 5 years old were not counted. Why does this matter? The federal government allocates over $1.5 trillion in funding to state and local governments based on census data. These funds help support programs many children rely upon like Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) programs, Head Start, school lunch programs, special education funding, foster care and after school education programs for children of working parents.

Why do children get undercounted in the census?  There are several reasons:

  • Young children often are missed because families completing the forms  don’t realize that young children are considered “people,” and that even infants and toddlers should be included             
  • Some children’s primary caretakers are their grandparents or other relatives who may be unsure they have the authority or permission to list these children living in their households.
  • Many children divide their time between separated or divorced parents who don’t coordinate who will list the child in the census. 
  • Young or single parents are less likely to complete the census, as are poor families, those who don’t speak English and immigrants who do not have permanent housing or share living spaces with multiple families in housing situations that may not be legal.

Getting an accurate count of children in immigrant families will pose a unique challenge this year because of the administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the census. Although this attempt ultimately failed in the courts, the suggestion of including the question has had a chilling affect among immigrants who either don’t know there is no citizenship question or who fear that the information they provide will be used against them. In reality, the census is meant to include both citizens and non-citizens. 

U.S. Code bars Census Bureau officials from publishing any information that could lead to personal identification of respondents. It also is meant to prevent government agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from accessing census responses. 

One tragic irony of this situation is that the very children who stand to gain the most from federally funded programs are the ones most likely to be undercounted and not get their fair share. Furthermore. the data collected will remain the basis for funding for the next 10 years until the next census is completed in 2030.

Pediatricians understand the vital importance of the many federally funded programs that support the health and well being of our patients. Children deserve to be counted in the census so their communities can get the crucial funding they are entitled to. We must help spread the word that #EveryChildCounts and do all we can to make sure that all children get counted in the 2020 Census.

Dr. Eve Krief
Executive Committee and Legislative Chair, NY Chapter 2 American Academy of Pediatrics

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