Every decade, the U.S. Constitution requires an accurate count of every resident in America. The decennial census is a civic duty that is of great importance to how the country is shaped and how federal dollars will be allocated.
Counting every individual, especially children, is crucial to the overall health of a state. While census accuracy for adults has been improving, the undercount of children under five years old has been on a gradual increase. According to The Leadership Conference Education Fund, the net undercount rate for young children is more than three times what it was in 1980, increasing from 1.4 percent to 4.6 percent in 2010.
Undercounting children can be a costly one – denying vulnerable communities a seat at the table when it comes to policy decision making. Like adults, children are counted towards total population numbers, which are used to determine federal and state funding allocations, political representation and the drawing of legislative district boundaries for the U.S. House of Representatives, state legislatures and local boards. Ultimately, if an accurate count is not achieved, the needs of the children are likely to be underrepresented and vital programs underfunded.
So why is this happening? A variety of obstacles could stand in the way of children being accurately recorded in census responses, especially when they are living in areas of high poverty, where significant numbers of residents move frequently or are new to a neighborhood. Young children in large families are also subject to being undercounted, because they are living in complex households. In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau indicated that nearly a quarter of the country’s children lived in households with six or more people. In addition, language barriers exist in places where English is a second language, discouraging survey completion.
A new potential road block to completion of the 2020 Census is the planned inclusion of a citizenship question. Such a question poses special risk to cities like Syracuse that are home to several refugee and immigrant communities. These residents are more likely to feel hesitation in filling out the questionnaire, fearing it puts them or their families at risk. This would be the first time in 70 years that U.S. citizenship status would be questioned in the survey. The Supreme Court is currently deciding whether it can be included.
Locally, the Central New York Community Foundation has seen first-hand how undercounting children can impact programming. When evaluating how many children were enrolled in the Imagination Library program by census tract, we found more children enrolled than we thought living in some neighborhoods.
Advocating for a complete count is something that the Community Foundation deems necessary. We will continue to join with our partners locally and state-wide to ensure accurate data is collected so that we can make a lasting impact on our communities.
To learn more about the risks of a 2020 Census undercount, check out https://cnyvitals.org/census-2020-challenges-ahead-for-cny/.