Child Welfare

The Census Citizenship Question and Children

Who counts as a person in America? The answer is more complicated than it should be. Every ten years the government is required by the Constitution to count the entire resident population of the United States. The Census matters for a very long list of reasons beginning with political representation: the count is used to determine how seats in the House of Representatives are distributed and states rely on it to map their own legislative districts. Census data are used to determine how federal and state funding are distributed for Medicaid, nutrition assistance programs, Head Start, education, Pell Grants, economic development, transportation spending, and much more. Businesses use the Census to make decisions about where consumers and workers are located. Researchers use it to study how diseases are concentrated or spread out over the population. It’s obvious – or should be obvious – that a huge range of stakeholders need this count of the entire population to be as accurate as it can possibly be.

That’s why there has been a swift, harsh, and widespread critical reaction to the Trump Administration’s request to add a question to the 2020 Census asking residents to identify whether or not they are citizens – a move that seems very likely to make many respondents fearful and anxious, especially in today’s national climate, about participating in the Census at all, leading to a very serious undercount. The period for public comment on this proposed change ends Tuesday, August 7th, and there is still time to add your voice to the loud chorus of stakeholders, experts, and everyday people asking the Commerce Department to withdraw this citizenship question.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the nation’s premier civil and human rights coalition, describes the scope of the opposition: “The bipartisan, mainstream alarm and opposition to adding a citizenship question at the last minute was vast, including 60 members of Congress; 161 Democratic and Republican mayors; two former Commerce Secretaries and six former Census directors who served in Republican and Democratic administrations; 19 attorneys general; the scientific and statistical community; and several dozen business leaders from across the country.” Eighteen state attorneys general and a number of cities and advocacy groups have filed lawsuits in an attempt to stop this question. The opposition must keep going.

If a question on citizenship is added to the Census, children stand to be among the biggest losers. Children already are disproportionately likely to be missed in a Census count. The 2010 Census is estimated to have undercounted one million children. Researchers have found children are more likely to live in “hard-to-count” households, including households that move often and live in rental housing. They also are more likely to live in large or complex households – for example, living with an adult who is not a parent – that may not list every member in a Census count.

Children of color and children in immigrant families are historically already especially likely to be undercounted. One study estimated that there was an undercount of 400,000 young Latino children in the 2010 census, and that three-quarters of those undercounted children came from just five states: California, Texas, Florida, Arizona and New York. States with large numbers of undercounted children are already losing out on their appropriate share of federal funding for education, health care, and more and all of these numbers would only skyrocket with an added question on citizenship status.

The Leadership Conference points out that there would be a significant financial cost to taxpayers just to add an untested question this late in the process: “According to the Census Bureau, every one percent decrease in the self-response rate will increase the cost of the count by $55 million. A five percent drop in self response would add an additional, unplanned $275 million to the [C]ensus.” The costs that would result from an inaccurate undercount will keep accumulating for the next ten years and years to come. As they also point out, with the Census, there are no do-overs.

Please make a difference today by submitting a comment on the citizenship question through the simple steps at Everyone – including every child – counts.

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Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on Mom’s Rising.