There are concerns that up to 18,000 of Rhode Island’s most vulnerable kids may not be counted in the 2020 census, according to a national report recently released.

The 2018 KIDS COUNT ® Data Book, an annual study of child well-being from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said that years of damage would occur if children are not counted in the 2020 Census.

Damage to Rhode Islanders by a census undercount

Roughly 300 federal programs use census-derived data to allocate more than $800 billion a year to states to run programs. Based on census data, Rhode Island receives $656 million a year in federal funding for programs like Medicaid, SNAP, CHIP, and foster/child care.

With a third of Rhode Island’s children under age five at risk of failing to be counted in the decennial census, federally funded supports that have driven youth success are in jeopardy, the Foundation said. This includes access to health insurance (RIte Care/Medicaid), the School Lunch Program, Head Start, and more.

“If we don’t count children, we render their needs invisible and their futures uncertain,” said Casey Foundation President and CEO Patrick McCarthy. “A major census undercount will result in overcrowded classrooms, shuttered Head Start programs, understaffed hospital emergency rooms and more kids without health care.”

If missed in the national count, children of color, low-income children, and children in immigrant families stand to suffer the most from reductions in funding to vital programs. This would have serious effects in Rhode Island because 17 percent of all RI children are low income, and 45 percent of RI children under age five are children of color, the foundation said.

Reliable data, particularly census data, is critical to informing decisions that improve the lives of America’s children, said Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and advocacy at the Casey Foundation.

“An inaccurate census threatens to undermine essential resources for communities and erode many of the advancements made in recent years for our children — particularly children of color — for years to come,” Speer said.

Undercounts have worsened

Census outreach efforts face daunting challenges according to the Foundation: a lack of leadership, the first-ever digital survey, and the potential of suppressed participation because of a citizenship question.

They say that the undercount of young children has worsened with every census since 1980. The 2010 survey had the worst undercount since 1950, with nearly five percent of children under five — about one million kids — not counted, according to the Foundation.

Foundation recommendations

The Annie E. Casey Foundation offered the following recommendations to achieve a more accurate census:

  • Maximize the Census Bureau’s capacity: Federal legislators need to fully fund the census outreach effort, and the administration needs to appoint a qualified and permanent director to lead the agency to provide support for a more accurate census than in 2010.
  • Fund state and local outreach: State and local governments and community organizations need to invest in educational outreach around the census to ensure that the most vulnerable communities are counted.
  • Expand the pool of trusted messengers: Broaden the circle of people (from child care providers to members of the clergy) and organizations (from public schools to libraries) who can provide outreach in their communities to reach hard-to-count households and encourage participation among people most likely to be missed.
  • Address the digital divide: Provide online access for all families to participate in the census, either in local libraries or schools.
  • Address privacy and confidentiality concerns:Given the growing distrust and fear of online data breaches, it is critical that government officials ensure the protection of respondents’ data.

The Casey Foundation asserts that this will require a concerted effort by the federal executive branch, Congress, state and local officials, advocates, businesses, service providers, community leaders and philanthropy.

What you can do to help

Local people can take several steps to help with this issue. These include:

  • Advocating to ensure computers are set up to complete the census in libraries throughout the state, because of the digital divide that exists for lower income people who do not always have access to computers and the internet.
  • Make sure you respond to the census survey when it begins so that you are counted.
  • Urge state and federal representative to allocate additional funding for census counting. 

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