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Experts Worried That 2020 Census Will Undercount Number Of Children


The country's once-a-decade census takes place in 2020. Historically, kids are undercounted, something the Annie E. Casey Foundation is warning about in its annual report, the KIDS COUNT Data Book. The federal government relies on census data to allocate funding. So if kids are undercounted, certain programs affecting children could be underfunded. We should note the Annie E. Casey Foundation is one of NPR's sponsors.

And I want to bring in Laura Speer, who is the foundation's associate director for policy reform and advocacy. Welcome to the program.

LAURA SPEER: Thanks so much for having me.

KELLY: So what do we mean when we say kids are undercounted? I mean, that means they're not getting counted in the census. Is that right?

SPEER: That's right.

KELLY: And why not?

SPEER: Well, there appears to be a number of different reasons. Young children tend to be in families that are more difficult for the census to count. They tend to be in families that are more mobile. And the census is a household survey, so if you're not in that house for a long period of time, it's harder for the census to count you. They also tend to be in households that are more complicated. So they might have multiple families living in the same household, or they live with their grandparents.

And then the final reason is that sometimes if - especially in a big family, the adult who's filling out the census form won't list all their children, and oftentimes it's the youngest that get left off. This means that the sort of net undercount is 1 million children under the age of 5 not included in the census form that need to be included.

KELLY: How steady is this undercounting? I mean, was this the problem with the last census that would have taken place and the one before that?

SPEER: It is. The undercounts actually have gotten worse every census since 1980. And we're especially concerned this time around because we know that the Census Bureau has not gotten the support that it has normally got in the past to ramp up in preparation for the decennial census, which will happen in 2020. They don't have a qualified permanent director in place. In fact, there's no permanent director in place.

There's also the addition of the citizenship question, asking whether or not the person filling out the census form is a U.S. citizen. Literally tens of millions of children live in households where someone in the household is an immigrant. If that person is afraid to complete the census form, the likelihood that that young child, who is a U.S. citizen, is not counted is higher. So that's definitely something that we're concerned about.

KELLY: So what are the implications of this? We mentioned federal funding for all kinds of programs is based on federal understanding of how many children might be needing programs. What are specific programs that might be impacted? Give me an example or two.

SPEER: Well, there are a lot of federal programs that are decided upon based on the census every year. In fact, it's 300 federal programs, about $800 billion. Some of the biggest ones are Medicaid for children, food stamps, Title I education funding for schools, school lunch programs, Head Start. If we don't get those numbers right, the states and localities who are the recipients of this funding are at risk of not getting the money they need to support the kids that they need to provide.

KELLY: What is to be done? We've got until 2020 to try to figure out how to make this the most accurate count possible. What kind of advice are you giving to policymakers?

SPEER: Time is short, but there is enough time to do it. It's not too late. We believe that we need to maximize the Census Bureau's capacity to do the job right. That means fully funding them. We can also expand the pool of trusted folks who work with kids to help with the census like child care providers, people in the faith community, schools, libraries. And because this is going to be the first census that's done primarily online, having opportunities for people who don't have access to the Internet in, let's say, a library to fill out their census form can make a big difference and help everybody be counted.

KELLY: Laura Speer, thanks very much.

SPEER: I'm very happy to be here.

KELLY: She is head of the national KIDS COUNT Project at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.