Missing More than 5,000 Children: The Census Undercount Rate for Young Children and What It Means

Part 3 of 3 in a series about DC’s young child population.

DC has more than 36,000 children under age five, according to the latest Population Estimates from the Census Bureau. That number has grown substantially over the past decade and will shape the city’s next decade, a major finding of our new DC KIDS COUNT data snapshot. We rely on these population data for everything from neighborhood-level planning to school enrollment projections to funding distribution. But what if those numbers were too low? What if we were undercounting our young children by more than 16 percent? 

Young children have a higher net undercount than any other age group in the Decennial Census. Research conducted by Dr. William O’Hare, a senior consultant at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, found that nearly one million American children under age five were missed in the 2010 Census, which amounts to a net undercount rate of 4.6 percent. Nationwide, among black and Hispanic young children, the net undercount was even higher.

In DC, the estimated undercount of young children amounts to 16 percent—far higher than the national rate. This means that Census numbers miss more than 5,000 young children in DC, with major implications for our neighborhoods and schools.

Why Does the Census Undercount Young Children?

Data collection and residential patterns are among the possible reasons, but no single or simple reason explains why young children are missed so often.

One explanation may be the way data are collected. Young children are more likely to live in larger, complex and more mobile families. The Census form only has room for complete information about six household members and space for the names of other people in the household. When people complete the form, they usually list household members from oldest to youngest, so the very youngest children might be left off in larger households. The Census Bureau has to follow up with these households later, which can be difficult.

Where young children live may contribute to the undercount: young children are more likely to live in hard-to-count neighborhoods, where Census response rates are low.

What Does the Undercount Mean for DC?

The Decennial Census is the basis for the Census Bureau’s annual Population Estimates and has a multitude of uses across the country and in our city—including poverty estimates and allocating public funding. Here in DC, school officials rely on Census data to plan for enrollment.  With the city’s growing young child population, we need to have a strong early care and education system with adequate prekindergarten slots. 

The undercount of young children can make enrollment planning more difficult, and the magnitude of the undercount shows up clearly when comparing prekindergarten enrollment to population data. In an unpublished analysis, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) found that the number of DC three- and four-year-olds enrolled in Head Start and publicly funded prekindergarten—even before adding in children in private child care and children cared for at home by their families—exceeded the entire population estimate for that age group.

The total projection by OSSE is 17,300 three- and four-year-olds in DC, a number far above the Census-estimated population of 13,300. This comparison supports the research about the Census undercount of young children, and it indicates that the number of children who are missed by the Census may be even greater than estimated. To plan properly for our children in matters such as school and child care, we need to count them accurately.

Where Do We Go From Here?

We know that the undercount of young children in the Census is a persistent problem. Research indicates that 16 percent of DC children under five—and potentially even more—are missed by the Census. Young children depend on us to make sure they are counted accurately. Although the 2020 Census is still years away, work to reduce the undercount needs to start now. In his working paper, Dr. O’Hare suggests several ways that organizations and community members can help:

•    Partner with the Census Bureau to get out the message that completely filling out Census form is important and easy. For example, the DC Counts Campaign Committee works together to ensure a higher response rate to the Census.

•    Those who work with parents of young children—organizations and people such as WIC, Head Start, child care centers, doctors and hospitals—should make sure that parents of young children are reminded to record all children in Census counts.

With a growing young child population, it is more important than ever to have accurate population data.

Read our previous blogs in this series about DC’s under age five population.
Part 1: DC’s Young Child Population is Growing. Are Neighborhoods Ready for Them?
Part 2: DC’s Young Child Population, by Neighborhood and Ward.

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