When Kids Don’t Count

When Kids Don’t Count

The Census already drastically undercounts children. Will “zero tolerance” make it worse?


There has been no shortage of ire and indignation about the Trump administration’s aggressive, draconian attacks on America’s black and brown immigrants—and it is warranted. Stories of agents from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) dining at restaurants only to detain kitchen workers , of threats to call ICE on Latinx speaking Spanish, of an immigrant delivering pizza being handed to ICE instead of being handed a tip, and a lawyer who says an ICE agent broke her foot when she showed up to court to represent an undocumented youth have become a too-regular part of our daily news. And, of course, there are thousands of children currently separated from their families by President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy on undocumented immigrants.

In recent weeks, as public outrage over the policy grew, the Trump administration was forced to scramble, with the president signing an executive order that purported to stop the family separation, moving instead to lock up parents and children together. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the children who were taken have still not been reunited with their families.

If the last month (if not the last year and a half) has shown anything, it is that the racist rhetoric of the administration comes with sharp teeth. Between the venomous words and the vicious policies, Trump has created a scenario where any person of color might might be suspicious of even the most innocuous interactions with the federal government. Where filling out a form could feel like a danger to yourself and your children.

A form like the Census.

A report out today from the Annie Casey Foundation, a philanthropic institution focused on under-served youth, says that more than a million children ages 0–4 were unaccounted for in the last census—and if nothing is done to fix it between now and 2020 (when the next Census takes place), this massive undercounting could happen again.

And, as if to compound matters, added to the 2020 Census (just days before the deadline!) is a question on citizenship status. Asking “Is this person a citizen of the United States?,” it’s the first time a query like this has appeared on the questionnaire since 1950, according to the report. “It’s hard to know what the impact of the citizenship question is going to be, because there is no testing,” said Laura Speer, lead researcher at the Annie Casey Foundation. “They do a lot of very careful testing in advance,” she said, and the one dress rehearsal done this time didn’t include the question on citizenship.

What will the effect of a citizenship question be in a country where nearly 17 million live in households where at least one person is undocumented? “It’s likely that the addition of that question is going to cause an…undercount or miscount because people will choose not to complete it because of fear,” said Speer referring to the citizenship question. “There’s been enough anecdotal evidence to show that is going to be the case.” In May, immigrant rights groups and the ACLU filed a sixth lawsuit to bar a question on immigrant status from being included in the census.

People’s being afraid to fill out the Census will not lead anywhere good. “The Census is sort of the baseline for all other surveys and all other government estimates,” said Speer, citing such important statistics as the poverty rate. The Census is also used to determine funding for about 300 government programs, including Head Start, Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. Without an accurate count of children, safety-net programs will be shortchanged once again. According to the report, that will negatively affect children in four major areas: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community.

Granted, fear is not the only thing that can drive a youth undercount. “Urban areas are harder to count and some rural places are harder to count,” said Speer. The report also highlights family configurations—some youth live don’t live with both or even one of their biological parents. Households where no one speaks fluent English tend to be undercounted. So too do families that are constantly on the move. Kids who live in impoverished areas are more at risk of being missed; big apartment complexes and rental homes are traditionally harder for the Census to count.

The Census is aware of its troubling undercounting of youth, according to its 2014 task-force report on the problem, but it doesn’t think the situation is intractable. “[T]here could be value in directing outreach and promotion for the 2020 Census to agencies working with parents and young children, especially minority children,” according to the report. “It is possible that advertising that highlights the importance of all children being included in the Census could have a positive impact.”

According to the US Census Bureau, “There is no single cause for the undercount, so there is no single solution.” When asked specifically about what will be done to better tally child populations, a spokesman wrote that the bureau is “working on strategies to make sure the count of our population is as complete as possible for the 2020 Census.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge this time out lies at the very top. As stated in the report, Congress has been underfunding the Census effort for the last six years, and the bureau has been without a permanent director since May of 2017.

Despite the current political climate, Speer is still hopeful. “If we act now, if we make the case for why it’s important that every person deserves to be counted and represented, including kids, [we can] make the count better. If there is the will to do it, it can be done.”

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