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Improving Our Count of Young Children

Mon Jul 02 2018
Written by: Dr. Ron Jarmin, performing the nonexclusive functions and duties of the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau
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By conducting the decennial census, the Census Bureau aims to count everyone living in the United States once, only once and in the right place. Over the decades, the Census Bureau has vastly improved its procedures to reduce or even eliminate occurrences of both overcounted and undercounted persons. As in the past, we are taking the lessons learned from previous surveys and studies to ensure a complete and accurate 2020 Census. In particular for 2020, we are well aware of and focused on the problem of undercounting young children ages 0 to 4 — a critical issue highlighted in a recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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The Census Bureau regularly works with groups like the Casey Foundation, in order to tackle stubborn problems and receive feedback on our initiatives. With the Casey Foundation’s help, and other organizations like it, we are conducting the most robust outreach and marketing effort ever attempted by the Census Bureau for the 2020 Census.

It is an unfortunate fact that the most vulnerable among us — young children — are more likely to be undercounted in the census than any other age group (nearly 1 million children were not counted in the 2010 Census). The Census Bureau has been diligently working for years to ensure that an undercount of this magnitude does not occur again in 2020.  Getting an accurate count of young children enables more accurate projections for many critical support service needs, such as education and healthcare.

In 2014, the Census Bureau released a report resulting from a task force analysis that summarized the undercount of young children and recommended research to improve our understanding of the possible causes. Since then, we have been reviewing existing data sources that might provide insights into the circumstances that lead to young children being missed in our surveys.

What we have learned:

  • An undercount of young children is not new or unique to the United States. Censuses around the world have struggled with this issue for decades.
  • Children living in complex living situations, such as staying with grandparents, other relatives or nonrelatives, are less likely to be counted.
  • Respondents in linguistically isolated neighborhoods and destinations for recent immigrants showed more confusion about whether to count a child in their household.

There are many reasons why children are undercounted. Since there is no single cause for the undercount of young children, there is no single solution to the problem. However, we are pursuing multiple strategies, specifically to ensure that the count of young children is as complete as possible:

  • We changed the wording on the census questionnaire to help those responding on behalf of their household to include children and babies. We have added the term “grandchild” and tested prompts to list unrelated children. This new wording was tested in the 2018 End-to-End Census Test.
  • We are developing materials that explain why young children are undercounted and how organizations and individuals can educate households likely to exclude young children on their questionnaire.
  • We are including messaging on the importance of including young children in our communications and partnership support materials.
  • We plan to purchase advertising and will have an online presence aimed toward households with young children. We will also partner with advocacy groups focused on children and local community groups who can help us get the word out about the importance of counting all children in the household.
  • We are working on a local level. Organizations that focus on children are connecting us with communities through pediatrician groups and advocacy organizations focused on local children. Together, we are getting the word out about counting all children.
  • We are working with local schools through our Statistics in Schools program to educate parents about the importance of the census by way of older siblings of these undercounted children.
  • We improved our census taker training materials to emphasize the importance of including children during interviews with nonresponding households.

What can you do?

  • If you know of a child who lives or stays in more than one household, help coordinate between the households about which one will list the child on its census questionnaire.
  • If the child truly spends equal amounts of time between two homes or if it is unclear where the child lives or sleeps most of the time, the child should be counted where he or she stayed on Census Day, April 1.
  • Encourage renters and recent movers to complete their census form online or over the phone so there is no worry about paper forms getting lost in the mail.
  • For those families who may not be fluent in English, encourage them to respond to the questionnaire online, where it is available in multiple languages. The Census Questionnaire Assistance Program, which runs a telephone support hotline, will also be available to support respondents with twelve non-English languages in 2020, up from five in 2010.
  • If you are part of an organization that works with young children, you can help by connecting with other local organizations, day care centers and pediatricians.

You can also connect with the Census Bureau’s partnerships team or with national organizations with whom we are partnering, like the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Children’s Leadership Council, Child Trends, the Population Reference Bureau and others, to coordinate your efforts with theirs.

After all, our goal for the 2020 Census is to count everyone — adults and children of all ages.


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