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U.S. Census Bureau: Don't Skip The Kids In 2020 Count

Kindergartners at Wade Park School in Cleveland greeted U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham with a song. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
Kindergarteners at Wade Park School in Cleveland greeted U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham with a song.

The federal government estimates nearly 1 million children under the age of 5 went uncounted in the 2010 U.S. Census.

Very young kids were the hardest age group to count last time. So census leaders and local advocates are putting special emphasis on counting kids—especially those in more complex family and custody arrangements.

That was a theme of U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham’s visit to Cleveland this past weekend. Kindergartners at Wade Park School in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood greeted Dillingham last Friday with a song about being counted.

“Because everyone counts in the U.S.-of-A., everyone counts in their own special way,” they sang.

Dillingham encouraged kids to become ambassadors for the census, reminding their parents or guardians to fill out the survey this year. He popped into classrooms to read a children’s book about the count and answer questions.

“So you can answer the census on the internet. Everybody knows what the internet is?” he asked, to a chorus of yeses.

U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham reads to students at Wade Park School in Cleveland. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

Research after the 2010 U.S. Census found kids living with someone other than a biological parent — like a grandmother or a foster family — were at risk of being uncounted. In an effort to clear up any confusion about whom to count, the 2020 U.S. Census specifically asks respondents to include grandkids in the home or unrelated children living there.

“The census is based on where you’re living,” Dillingham said. “So it doesn’t matter that you may have a tie to another state, or to a person in another state or to another neighborhood or wherever. It’s where you’re living. You need to be counted there.”

Workers will go door-to-door from May through July to follow up with households that haven’t responded to the census yet. They’ll be trained to ask about kids who may have been missed, according to Karen Deaver, program manager for the Census Bureau’s effort, to avoid a child undercount.

But those census workers will have to earn residents’ trust. Lower-income families with young children have less trust in the federal government, according to one post-census study.

“There are cases where people deliberately feel the need to potentially conceal,” Deaver said. “Maybe they’re in senior housing. Maybe there’s more people living there than the lease allows.”

So U.S. Census officials and their local partners are trying to emphasize that questionnaire responses are confidential by law.

Programs that serve families and kids — like Head Start, food and cash assistance, children’s health insurance — rely on census numbers to allocate funding and other resources. Young kids who aren’t counted this year may not show up in statistics until they’re teenagers, Deaver said.

“All of the things that improve our quality of life that we are blessed with in this country are based on the population statistics,” she said. “And we need to get them right, and the next chance is 10 years from now. Ten years from now is an entire childhood.”

The Census Bureau expects local institutions and grassroots groups to help improve the count. Some local efforts include visual census infographics for people who have trouble reading and outreach to barbershops and salons. University Hospitals’ Rainbow Center for Women and Children will set up computers on-site in Cleveland’s Midtown neighborhood, so families can fill out census forms while waiting for the doctor.

Attendees at a U.S. Census Bureau event at the Great Lakes Science Center pose with the Sesame Street character the Count. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

This past weekend, the Census Bureau tried to get the word out with a free family day at the Great Lakes Science Center, handing out flyers and census-branded baby bibs. Families took photos of their kids with the Sesame Street characters Rosita and—of course—the Count.

Among the crowds were Rasheeda Larkin and her 3-year-old son, Langston.

Larkin has every intention of filling out the census with her family, she said. She works in community relations for the Cleveland Clinic, and knows spreading the word about the count is a priority this year.

But she also understands how common it is to be taking care of other relatives’ kids, she said. Her family recently adopted her niece, Larkin said.

“We have so much intergenerational housing in Cleveland and the surrounding areas,” she said. “So we have so many aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandpas taking care of the kids because we have so many kids in the foster care system.”

Overcoming confusion and winning trust in communities like Cleveland will be a major task for U.S. Census advocates in the weeks remaining before Census Day on April 1.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.