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Census Bureau Wants To Do Better At Counting Kids

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The census 10 years ago missed a lot of children. It's estimated nearly a million kids under the age of 5 were not counted. The Census Bureau wants to do better. This time, it's making a special effort to reach kids who live in nontraditional families. From member station WCPN, ideastream, Nick Castele reports.

NICK CASTELE, BYLINE: When it comes to counting young children, the Census Bureau is up against a challenging historical trend. Young kids have long been undercounted, and the problem has grown worse in recent decades. Demographer Bill O'Hare says some families just don't know whom to count.

BILL O'HARE: The undercount of young children has tripled since 1980, where the undercount of other groups has improved over that period.

CASTELE: Other families who are raising their grandkids or nephews or nieces aren't sure whether they should count them. O'Hare credits the Census Bureau for making kids a bigger priority this time around. Those efforts included a recent visit by bureau director Steven Dillingham to Wade Park School in Cleveland. The kindergartners entertained him with a census song.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Everybody counts in the U.S. of A. Everyone counts in their own special way.

CASTELE: The school is in a neighborhood where census response rates have historically been low. Dillingham encouraged kids to become ambassadors for the census, reminding parents or guardians to fill out the survey this year.

STEVEN DILLINGHAM: So you can answer the census on the Internet. Everybody knows what the Internet is?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Yes.

CASTELE: In an effort to clear up any confusion families might have, the 2020 census is specifically asking people to count grandkids or unrelated children in the home. Dillingham says families should count kids where they're living, even if they have ties to other places.

DILLINGHAM: But it's so important we get the people counted, whether they're with a grandparent or an aunt and uncle or friend of the family. We just need them counted.

CASTELE: One issue that could stand in the way is trust. Karen Deaver manages the Census Bureau's effort to count kids.

KAREN DEAVER: There are cases where people deliberately feel the need to potentially conceal. Maybe they're in senior housing. Maybe there's more people living there than the lease allows.

CASTELE: To address concerns and calm any fears, census officials and local partners are emphasizing that questionnaire responses are confidential by law. Deaver says census workers going door to door this summer will be trained to ask about kids who might have been missed. In Cleveland, the census hosted a free family day at the Great Lakes Science Center. Families took photos of their kids with the Sesame Street characters Rosita and of course, The Count. Among the crowds were Rashida Larkin (ph) and her 3-year-old son, Langston (ph).

LANGSTON LARKIN: Hi. My name's Langston.

CASTELE: Larkin's family plans to fill out the census. She works in community relations for the Cleveland Clinic and says spreading the word about the count is a priority. But she understands how common it is to be taking care of other relatives' kids. Her family recently adopted her niece.

RASHIDA LARKIN: We have so much intergenerational housing in Cleveland and its surrounding areas. So we have so many aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandpas taking care of the kids because we have so many kids in a foster care system.

CASTELE: And in cities like Cleveland, which has been losing population for decades, counting the next generation could play a key role in keeping resources flowing to neighborhoods most in need.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Castele in Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.