Will children in your state get the support they need? It depends on the 2020 census

The first three years of a child’s life are the most crucial for brain development. In fact, children raised in poverty have less brain tissue compared to their counterparts.

The U.S. has educational and social programs that can help children in poverty succeed – like Early Head Start, an intensive program designed to promote young children’s development.

But, every year, children are left on waiting lists for programs like this because the federal government did not allocate enough money for all children in need of services.

Americans want children to have every opportunity to develop to their fullest potential. And yet, if the U.S. does not count all young children in the upcoming 2020 census, states will not be able to obtain enough funding to provide children with critical support.

This past year, as co-director of Mississippi KIDS COUNT, I had a chance to lead a project that explored what factors might promote or discourage census participation among Mississippi families. Our project revealed some reasons why states may struggle to count all their children.

Counting children

The census occurs every 10 years, as mandated by the U.S. Constitution. The next census will be conducted in 2020. Every person living on U.S. soil on Census Day, April 1, 2020, must be counted.

In past censuses, children ages 0 to 5 have proven the hardest group to count. In 2010, approximately 1 million children in this age range were not counted.

Sometimes children are undercounted due to their living arrangements, such as having divorced parents or living with a nonparent family member like an aunt or grandmother. Sometimes the entire family is missed because the parents are young and less likely to participate, or they rent, and forms get lost in the mail.

Furthermore, many states have large areas that are considered hard to count by the U.S. Census Bureau because citizens in these areas can be difficult to locate or reluctant to respond. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 27% of Mississippians live in hard-to-count neighborhoods.

The Census Bureau assigns each area a ‘low response score,’ a predicted rate of how many people will not respond to the census.
The 2020 census will be the first in which most forms are completed online. However, many parts of the state lack high-speed internet access.

Funding for children

Census counts of children are used to determine federal funding levels for schools, foster care, child care, nutrition programs, school lunches and public health insurance.

Using census data and a George Washington University report, our team estimated that just a 5% undercount of young children in Mississippi would cost the state US$100 million in federal dollars per year – for 10 years.