Evidence mounts regarding respondent confusion about counting young children in the Census

By William P. O’Hare, O’Hare Data and Demographic Services LLC

Demographers have been grappling for an explanation for why young children (age 0 to 4) have such a high net undercount in the U.S. Census. (O’Hare 2015; U.S. Census Bureau 2014:2019). In the 2010 Census, over 2 million young children were missed according to Census Bureau studies with a net undercount of roughly one million (U.S. Census Bureau 2016). The net undercount rate and omissions rate for young children are higher than any other age group.

Several recent studies are providing new answers for why young children are missed so often in the Census. These studies reveal that young children are often missed because a large share of respondents do not think they are supposed to include young children in their census questionnaire.  The evidence to support this idea has grown dramatically in the past few years.

In their qualitative study of 2010 Census respondents Schwede and Terry (2013) indicated many respondents do not believe the Census Bureau (or the federal government) wants children included in the Census count.

In a series of short surveys by the Census Bureau (Nichols et al. 2014a, 2014b, 2014c) respondents were asked, “What information do you think the Census typically collects every 10 years?” and were offered several choices. The percentage who thought the Census Bureau collects “Names of children living at your address” was 7 to 9 percentage points lower than the percentage who thought the Census Bureau collects, “Names of adults living at your address.” While this question asks about names rather than about information on individuals, it suggests that some people think the Census does not request information on children.

In the summer of 2018, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) asked Hispanic respondents with young children if they thought those young children were supposed to be included in the Census. About 15 percent were unsure if young children were supposed to be included in the Census (Vargas 2018).  The high rates at which Hispanic respondents do not believe the Census Bureau wants young children included in the Census may help explain the high net undercount of young Hispanic children. The official data from the 2010 Census shows a net undercount of 7.5 percent of young Hispanic children.

In the summer of 2019, the Count All Kids Campaign commissioned a survey conducted by Lake Research Partners to find out more about why young children were missed in the Census. That survey of low-income parents with young children found that 18 percent of respondents were not sure they were supposed to include young children in the Census (Count All Kids 2019).

In the fall of 2019, Article I, a national civic campaign to promote the 2020 Census, commissioned a survey of several populations, including several Hard-to-Count groups, and asked about whether respondents thought young children were supposed to be included in the Census. In the general population, about a third of the population were unsure if “the census counts all children and/or babies.” For young adults (age 18-34) which is the age group most likely to be parents of young children, 40 percent were unsure if children or babies were supposed to be included in the census. Authors of this study conclude, “Misinformation and a lack of knowledge are standing in the way of everyone being counted in the 2020 census – especially when it comes to young children.”

These studies also show that African Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to believe the government does not want young children included in the Census. This helps explain why young children in those groups are more likely to be missed in the Census.

This information provides a good indication why young children are missed at such a high rate in the Census. Moreover, it suggests a strong public education campaign is required to get a more complete count of young children in the 2020 Census.  Families need to be told explicitly that young children are supposed to be included in the Census. A vague message about counting everyone is less likely to be effective.

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