Many children go uncounted in the U.S. census, yet programs that serve them depend on federal money, according to experts at a panel that met recently in San Francisco.

The experts met Sept. 27 at the World Affairs Council to explain why an accurate tally of children is so important.

“The consequences are quite serious,” said Mayra Alvarez, president of The Children’s Partnership, a nonprofit child advocacy group. “There are billions of dollars at stake.”

At risk in California is $3 billion in funding to the state, she said.

Robert Clinton, the 2020 census project manager for the San Francisco Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs (OCEIA), repeated that sentiment.

“We have a lot at stake in the 2020 census as far as resources,” he said.

For Head Start alone, the city has received $96 million in the last nine fiscal years or about $10 million annually.

San Francisco has 30 Head Start locations.

The youngest children, those 5 and under, are most at risk from undercounting because programs that serve youth disproportionately depend on federal money.

Clinton cited several reasons children go uncounted. Often they live with non-parents, some live in multiple households, some live in households with multiple families. Others may be moving when the count is taken or they’re born around the time of the census.

Still others may live in households that rent, which are households most likely to go uncounted.

Christina Mei-Yue Wong, a special assistant to the superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, Christina Mei-Yue Wong, said counting children accurately is in the interest of the district.

She cited three programs for which the district receives federal money, including the school lunch program, which is critical for some families.

“Sometimes it’s the best meal that they (children) receive each day,” Wong said.

Panelists also cited the need to reach out to children, particularly immigrant children, who can share the importance of the census with their parents, who may not speak English.

To that end, the San Francisco OCEIA  kicked off a poetry, creative writing and arts contest Sept. 27 for San Francisco youths age 14 to 21.

Titled, “Why My Family Counts in the 2020 Census,” the first-place winners in the eight age groups each take home $500 and each of the eight second-place winners take home $250.

Contestants are asked to explain who their family is, where they live and why counting every member in the census matters.

Contestants are urged to email or call 415-626-1650 for more information. Ask for My Family Counts.

Son Le, a partnership specialist at the U.S. Census Bureau, said the census is a local concern.

“It’s your concern. It’s my concern,” he said. Not being counted, it means people don’t exist, he said. “It’s beyond the funding,” Le said.

Reflecting the need to reach out to children, three youths provided examples of entries to the “Why My Family Counts in the 2020 Census” contest.

In her example, Talia Kishinevsky, a student at Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, echoed Le’s feelings, saying, “Every 10 years we count our freedoms.”

Invitations to complete the census online will go in the mail between March 12 and 20. Some households will receive a paper questionnaire.