Counting Young Kids Is A Growing Concern Going Into 2020 Census

Jan 18, 2019

Bill O’Hare is one of the nation’s foremost experts on census related issues.
Credit Ang Santos / WBGO

2010 Census statistics show most children under age 5 that weren’t counted live in what’s called “hard to count” areas.  Experts say these are generally majority minority, low poverty municipalities.

“I can say that my wife and I are taking it so seriously, that since the last census count, we’ve had three children,” said Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh, who jokes about it but understands that his city has one of the largest populations of undercounted children in New Jersey.  That’s why Paterson created a Complete Count Committee.

“Housing dollars, healthcare dollars, dollars for schools, education are at stake.  That’s why we’re trying to reach out to as many people as possible,” Sayegh said.

There’s been a push from the state government to promote the 2020 Census.  Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez is one of the lead members on the statewide Complete Count Commission.

“This commission will be challenged with ensuring that the state’s resources are put to use on the local level to establish critical partnerships in those communities that need the most attention for a complete count,” Lopez said. 

Billions of federal dollars that fund programs from public housing to Medicaid are allocated through Census numbers.  

“How many kindergarten classes do we need to have?  How many health care facilities?  How many beds in a hospital?  That’s all reliant on census numbers,” said Alana Vega, Kids Count Coordinator with Advocates for Children of New Jersey.  “Also, congressional representation is impacted by our census count.  If you will remember, in 2010, New Jersey lost a congressional seat.  We would like to prevent that from happening again.”

In 2010, New Jersey had a 5.2 percent undercount of young kids.  

“27,000 young people. If you turn that into a social math situation, that’s about 1,300 kindergarten classes that aren’t accounted for in young children,” said Bill O’Hare, one of the nation’s foremost experts on census related issues.  “Particularly if you think about using that data for to plan for kindergartens, schools and other activities you can see why that kind of an undercount is a problem.”

O’Hare believes community count committees and better messaging from the Census Bureau will help the undercount situation but says there’s other means to reach out to parents of young children.

“I have this idea that if we could put something on all of the diaper manufacturers and all of the baby food that says ‘count your young kids’ in the first quarter of 2020, that would be very helpful.  If you can’t get it there, at least putting a poster up next to the diaper and baby food stands at the grocery store is the next best solution,” O’ Hare said.

As far as the citizenship question goes…

“The age group that has the highest concentration of living in households with one or more non-citizens is young children.  About twenty percent of young children live there.  So, if those households don’t respond to this.  Young children are going to be hurt the most even though 99 percent of them are citizens,” O’ Hare said.

With or without the citizenship question, O’Hare says the odds are stacked against the upcoming census. Since 1980, the net undercount of young children has only gotten worse. 

“If we don’t do something different in 2020 than what we did in 2010, 2000, and 1990, we shouldn’t expect better results.”