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Accurate census count critical for Baltimore kids

With the 2020 census looming, how the city counts Baltimore’s children will be critical to how well we’re able to take care of them.

Population statistics, based on the number of people counted in the most recent census, determine how much money states get from the federal government. Whether Maryland receives its fair share over the next decade depends on counting everyone. But funds for children’s programs are distributed based on the number of children counted, not the number of people counted. And research on U.S. censuses shows that children, especially young ones, are more likely than adults to be missed or undercounted.

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The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the 2010 census missed 4.6% of children under age 5, but overcounted people 18 and over by 0.7%. In Maryland, nearly 17,000 children under age 5 were left out of the 2010 census. Census Bureau data suggest that the Maryland undercount was clustered in the counties near Baltimore and DC.

At the Johns Hopkins 21st Century Cities Initiative, we examined what is at stake for the children of Baltimore in the 2020 census. Programs that are vulnerable to child undercount include the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the school free breakfast and lunch programs. A large child undercount would also mean that Baltimore would not receive its fair share of federal funds for schools, special education and child care.

If undercount occurs, the losses will be significant. In 2018, the federal government distributed $5 billion just for WIC among the states, approximately $670 per eligible child. In Baltimore City, over 15,000 infants and children rely on food from WIC.

Funds that help to address unemployment among young people in Baltimore also are in peril. More than 8,000 Baltimore City residents ages 14 to 21 gained short-term employment in 2017 through a workforce training initiative that relies on federal funds allocated according to the census.

Why are children undercounted? Some are left out when a household doesn’t return the census form. A bigger issue is when a form is returned without all household members.

The form will ask for the number of people living or staying in the home on April 1, 2020. The answer should include everyone, regardless of their age or relationship to others in the home.

People don’t forget about their kids, but they do misinterpret the question. They might assume the census doesn’t include babies. Or they might be uncertain about including a child in the household count.

Consider the following scenario. A young girl lives with her mother in Park Heights during the school year but goes to live with her father in Reservoir Hill during the summer. When it comes time to complete the census form, neither her mother nor her father includes her as a member of their household because they assume the other would.

Another scenario: When a baby boy was born, his mother lived in an apartment in Greektown. When he was 2, the salon where she worked closed, so they moved into her mother’s house in Remington to save money. The boy’s grandmother agreed to keep him while his mother moved to Pennsylvania for three months to train for a new job. But the grandmother doesn’t include him on her census form because she thinks of him as living with her temporarily.

An accurate census count is essential for the well-being of Baltimore’s children.

Pre-existing inequalities in income, health and education in Baltimore City will not go away with an accurate census count, but they are likely to get worse with an inaccurate one.

Leaders like Del. Stephanie Smith and Sen. Mary Washington assembled the city and state Complete Count Committees, which are working hard to encourage robust participation. But participation alone is insufficient. Accuracy also matters.

During the coming school year, children will learn about census 2020 in their classrooms. Educators should take the opportunity to emphasize that participation is the first step and accuracy is the crucial second step. Even young children can remind their parents to count them accurately as household members.

Baltimore City can set a national example by counting all our children. One reward will be 10 years of funding for programs that help ensure all the city’s children are healthy and able to flourish.

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Stuart Schrader (stuart.schrader@jhu.edu), Mary Elizabeth Hughes (mehughes@jhu.edu), and Mac McComas (MacMcComas@jhu.edu) are researchers with the Johns Hopkins 21st Century Cities Initiative who have explored the effects of census undercount in Baltimore City.

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