U.S. Census 2020 mailings. The Census Bureau said it had...

U.S. Census 2020 mailings. The Census Bureau said it had undercounted children under 5 on Long Island and nationwide.  Credit: Bloomberg/Andrew Harrer

Children under the age of 5 on Long Island were undercounted in the 2020 Census at a rate even higher than New York state or national rates, according to experimental data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday, which noted that young children were undercounted in every state.

The issue of census undercounts of young children in particular, along with some minorities, is something the Census Bureau has acknowledged is a long term problem despite efforts to address it, experts said.

“It’s really sad that the census for a couple of decades now has consistently missed so many children under 5,” said Steven Romalewski, mapping service director at the CUNY Graduate Center for Urban Research. “There are a lot of reasons for that,” continued Romalewski, who was a consultant for Long Island groups doing census 2020 outreach efforts, “but overall it’s really terrible for the nation [that] we’re not accurately counting such an important part of the population.”

The agency said it was redoubling its efforts by putting together a working group to study the issue and come up with solutions as it prepares for the 2030 Census. 

     WHAT TO KNOW

  • Children under the age of 5 on Long Island were undercounted in the 2020 Census at a rate even higher than New York State or national rates, according to the Census Bureau
  • Young children were undercounted in every state in the nation in 2020, the Census said
  • The undercounting affects how government money is allocated to programs impacting children. 

The decennial census drives an estimated $2.8 trillion a year in federal funding to states and localities for a variety of services and programs, and affects planning by businesses and municipalities.

The undercounting is significant because states use census counts to distribute money to a range of programs, including those aimed at improving the health and nutrition for children. The Census count also plays a role in planning for school enrollment and spending. 

Children under 5 undercounted by 1

million

The bureau said in a news release that the number of children ages 0 to 4 counted in the 2020 Census was about 1 million fewer than the estimate — 19,462,879 were estimated, but 18,400,235 were counted in the 2020 Census — for an undercount of 5.46%.

“The Census Bureau recognizes historical undercounts of young children in our decennial census as well an underrepresentation in our demographic surveys,” Census Director Robert Santos said in a statement. “We know these undercounts are often correlated with undercounts of certain race and ethnicity groups along with other factors that we were not able to measure directly.”

“This was a larger undercount than any other age group,” the bureau said.

The Census Bureau said the estimated counts were derived using an experimental “Demographic Analysis” that uses new data to focus on children, using administrative records, such as birth records, international migration and Medicare records, and adjusted for migration between counties. The Census numbers represent those actually counted through self-reporting or canvassing.

New York State was among 14 states and the District of Columbia that posted undercount rates of children under 5 that were higher than the national rate, the Bureau said. New York's undercount rate was 5.75%.

The rate for Nassau and Suffolk counties was even higher: 7.83% in Nassau and 9.15% in Suffolk. According to the Census Bureau's analysis. Nassau had an estimated 75,039 children ages 0 to 4, while the 2020 Census counted 69,160. Suffolk had an estimated 79,849 children ages 0-4, while the 2020 Census counted 72,546.

Two reasons given for low count

William O'Hare, a consultant to Count All Kids Coalition, an advocacy group,” said there were two main reasons for the undercount of children under 5.

“They have a lot of characteristics associated with people being missed: higher poverty, younger parents, renters.” Secondly, he said, according to a survey his group did in 2019, “When you ask parents if they plan to include young children in the census, 10% said they were not planning to include their young child on the census and 8% said they were not sure.”

He said further questioning revealed “most of them didn't think there was any need for the government to know about young children until they go to school. So that's why they have the highest undercount,” one that he said was “increasing in every census.”

Romalewski and others noted that the Census count was also affected by how the COVID-19 pandemic upended overall census efforts. The lockdown caused not only the Census Bureau to pause door-to-door census canvassing, but organizations involved in census outreach had to pivot from in-person events to other methods.

But if communities don't have accurate information on how many children will be coming into a school district, needed resources may not be available, Romalewski said. 

“It’s not like those children aren’t there. They are there. When they show up at schools and there are not enough teachers to teach them … everyone gets hurt,” Romalewski said. “All of sudden classrooms are crowded. There's not enough funding to provide resources to the kids, so everyone gets hurt.”

Rebecca Sanin, now a Suffolk County legislator (D-Huntington Station), was chief executive of the Health & Welfare Council of Long Island when she coordinated the Island's 2020 census outreach efforts. She thought the “stresses” faced by new parents generally, compounded with economic stress “and the isolation of the pandemic” were contributing factors to the undercount.

Vanessa Baird-Streeter, who as a Suffolk deputy county executive was involved in 2020 census outreach efforts and now heads the Health & Welfare Council of Long Island, said during outreach events, “We were hearing, when talking with our community-based organizations and talking to people, we heard 'When I filled out the census I wasn't thinking about my child in my response.' I think that’s one piece.”

Baird-Streeter added: “We have complex living arrangements on Long Island, due to lack of affordable housing. We have multi-generations living together,” or households with unrelated people living together. So who gets included on the census sometimes depends on who is answering it, she said.

CORRECTION: The amount of federal funds distributed to states, communities, tribal lands and other recipients using census data in whole or in part is $2.8 trillion in fiscal year 2021, according to a U.S. Census Bureau study. The percentage of children undercounted in Brooklyn in the 2020 Census was 6.98%. A prior version of this story and an accompanying chart, listed incorrect numbers.

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