A Citizenship Question in the 2020 Census Would Hurt Young Children

By Shiva Sethi

The U.S. Census has historically undercounted young children. Adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census will make the count even less accurate than it already is. 

The census comes from a constitutional mandate to count all U.S. residents every decade. Unfortunately, the census has undercounted young children since at least 1980. The problem’s only getting worse, even as counts improve for other age groups. The 2010 census missed more than 2 million children under age 5 — a shocking 10 percent of the young child population. Children who are poor, Hispanic, black, or Native are more likely to be missed than their peers. 

Adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census will further weaken the count. Children in immigrant families are already at risk of being undercounted for a number of reasons, such as language barriers; living in larger, multi-generational families; and having confidentiality concerns. 

CLASP’s research on young children in immigrant families shows that the Administration’s anti-immigrant policy and rhetoric have created a climate of fear. Many immigrants are afraid to access public benefits, even on behalf of their U.S. citizen children. Early reports suggest that many families would similarly be afraid to identify themselves as non-citizens and would ultimately choose not to fill out the census. With more than a quarter of children under age 5 living in an immigrant family, the Administration’s decision could make the 2020 census one of the least accurate in recent history.

Census data are used daily by researchers, policymakers, government officials, and businesses. Researchers use the information to understand our country’s changing demographics. Policymakers use census data to determine federal funding for our most important domestic programs, including Medicaid, Head Start, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). In FY 2015, Congress allocated more than $675 billion using funding formulas that are based on census data. When the census leaves out young children, their communities receive fewer resources than they deserve. Worse, the children with the greatest need are also the ones most likely to be missed.

Our youngest children should be a priority, not an oversight. The Trump Administration should work to improve the count of young children—not reduce the census’s accuracy.