(Photo by Ryan Fields on Unsplash)

If you’re the parent of a California preschooler, don’t be surprised if she or he comes home with a flyer reminding you to count them in the 2020 census.

As California gears up for the census, state officials and advocates are trying to spread the word through preschools, doctor’s offices and community centers to count the youngest state residents — infants and children under 5 years old. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates about 210,000 children under 5 years old in California were left uncounted in the 2010 census.

“Younger children were missed at a higher rate than any other demographic group,” said William O’Hare, a demographer and author of the book, “The Undercount of Young Children in the U.S. Decennial Census.”

Children under 5 years old are more likely to be left uncounted for multiple reasons. Adults don’t always realize that infants and toddlers should be counted in the census and if small children split time between two or more homes, family members often aren’t sure in which home to count them.

In addition, many young children live in households that are least likely to fill out the census form or answer questions when a census official comes to their door. Those households include low-income families, families of color, families with several generations living together and families who speak a language other than English.

They also include families with at least one person who is not a citizen, which includes permanent residents, people with work or student visas and undocumented immigrants. In those immigrant households, there is a higher percentage of children under 5 than older children, adults, or any other age group, O’Hare said.

That’s significant because immigrant households may be afraid to fill out the census form, especially after the Trump administration proposed including a question about citizenship. The Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision in June about whether that question can be included.

“Even before the citizenship question was added, immigrant groups and their allies were worried about what the administration might do with this information about them,” O’Hare said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it has frightened many of them.”

If small children aren’t accurately counted, California could potentially get less federal funding than needed for programs such as Head Start. Many county and city governments also receive funding from both the state and federal government tied to census counts and local governments also use the counts for planning purposes.

Census officials have identified the census tracts where fewer households filled out the census form in the past and those with populations at risk of being undercounted, so that states can prioritize those communities for campaigns to get all residents counted.

California legislators allocated $100 million in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 budgets for outreach and planning to make sure that all Californians are counted. Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed an additional $54 million in his proposed 2019-20 budget. Some of that funding was used to set up the California Complete Count — Census 2020 office and help local governments update addresses for the U.S. Census Bureau, but most of it is for outreach.

Diana Crofts-Pelayo, spokeswoman for the California Complete Count office, which is leading the efforts, said outreach to families with infants and toddlers has to be included when targeting other populations that are undercounted, such as families that rent and immigrant families.

“To ensure that the 0-5 population is counted, we really need to spread the word to other hard-to-count populations,” Crofts-Pelayo said.

She said her office awarded a first round of funding to community-based organizations to do census outreach, but did not receive any proposals for outreach to families with children 5 and younger. They hope to call for more proposals after June.

“We know that communities and local governments know their communities best,” Crofts-Pelayo said.

One organization already working on outreach is the First 5 Association of California, a nonprofit that works with counties to serve children under 5 years old. Executive Director Moira Kenney said First 5 commissions are uniquely positioned to do outreach for the census because they have connections with many of the organizations that work with low-income families with young children.

“Our strategy is to get communications directly into the hands of trusted messengers,” Kenney said.

Trusted messengers include organizations that families with young children already work with to receive social services, such as food banks, libraries, family resource centers, community clinics, preschools and child care centers. The idea is that staff at these organizations can tell families how important it is to include their children on the census form and help dispel any fears they may have about how the information could be used.

The First 5 Association has been working with counties to identify community-based organizations in the neighborhoods the U.S. Census Bureau has determined would most likely go undercounted in the census.

For example, Kenney said in one undercounted census tract in Madera County, there is already a family resource center that offers parenting classes and connects families to other services such as the food bank or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which provides food to low-income mothers with small children.

“Rather than train other people, we’re going to train that staff to be the census 2020 outreach,” Kenney said.

School districts and county offices of education that operate preschool programs may play a big role in census outreach.

The largest school district in the state, Los Angeles Unified, is working with principals and preschool and child-care providers to get the word out about the census to parents. The district also plans to hold focus groups with parents of infants and preschoolers to ask if they are going to participate in the census and to gather recommendations on how to do better outreach. In addition, the district plans to erect census kiosks at six early childhood education sites in neighborhoods with low response to the last census, with computers available where the public can fill out the census.

Story originally published by EdSource.

Zaidee Stavely