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Children Under 5 Among Most Undercounted in Last Census

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Counting every person in the United States in a census every 10 years is a challenge. But counting every infant and toddler in the country may be one of the most challenging parts of the job.

Parents and adults with young children often don’t realize they need to include all children who live with them fulltime or at least most of the time.

The Census Bureau is working to educate the public that young children should be counted if they live and sleep in a home most of the time. A newborn should be counted if he or she was born on or before April 1, 2020.

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In the 2010 Census, nearly 1 million children (4.6% of children under the age of 5) were not counted, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In fact, children under age 5 are one of the largest groups of undercounted people in the United States.

Counting young children will be vitally important in the 2020 Census because population statistics are used by local, state, and federal lawmakers to determine how to spend billions of dollars in federal and state funds annually over the next 10 years.

Much of that money funds programs that directly affect children. They include nutrition assistance, Head Start, special education, foster care, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program and housing assistance to help a child’s family.

Knowing how many children live in a community is the foundation of many important municipal decisions. For example, should a community build a new library? A new school? A new hospital? Should Head Start for pre-K children be expanded?

These local decisions are driven by changes in population, and often by the growth in the number of children. A new school may be needed because of increased births in one area but the school might not be built if all newborns and toddlers – future school children – are not counted.

Karen Deaver, program manager for the 2020 Census undercount of young children effort and chair of the Census Bureau’s Undercount of Young Children Task Force, said the Census Bureau is working in coordination with public and private partners and educators to ensure all children are counted in 2020.

“We recognize that this is a persistent problem and it’s a growing problem,” she said. 

The Census Bureau is working to educate the public that young children should be counted if they live and sleep in a home most of the time. A newborn should be counted if he or she was born on or before April 1, 2020.

As part of this effort, the Census Bureau has integrated messaging into its advertising and communications efforts, partnered with national and local organizations that focus on young children and published materials online including a dedicated web page on counting young children. It also expanded the Statistics in Schools materials and outreach to include pre-schools.

Why Are Young Children Missed?

Sometimes children are missed simply because adults in their households don’t return the census questionnaire.

Most often, people who do return the forms just forget to count everyone under their roof. They may leave off young children who live with them or may be staying with them temporarily.

This most often occurs in so-called “complex households” — for example, those with multiple generations of a family, unrelated families living together, and blended or foster families.

In the 2010 Census, about 40% of all young children fell under the complex household category, according to the Census Bureau.

People who move on or around Census Day are also at higher risk. This transience makes it hard to count children.

“It may be a situation where mom and the kids are living with grandma for a little while until mom gets back on her feet,” Deaver said.

But then the grandmother doesn’t think to count the children when a census questionnaire hits her mailbox.



According to the Census Bureau, children living in homes where the adults have limited English-speaking skills or are living in poverty are also more likely to be missed.

If families live in subsidized housing that limits how many can live in each unit, people may be reluctant to report everyone who lives there and may be afraid to include all the children on the census questionnaire.  

“Maybe there is a family [that the householders] aren’t telling the landlord about,” said Ashley Austin, the Census Bureau’s Communications Lead for Counting Young Children in the 2020 Census. “If the family isn’t supposed to be there, or they are just couch surfing,” the householder may not think to count them.

But they should.

Responses to the 2020 Census are confidential and protected by law. They cannot be shared with any law enforcement or immigration agency such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). And responses, of course, are never shared with landlords or any other individual. The information collected is used only to produce statistics.

Not Counting Young Children Can Affect Them for Years

Because census results help determine where federal funds are distributed for programs that are important for children, an accurate count can shape a child’s future for the next decade and beyond.

It’s important to count young children now so that they have the resources they need as they grow up. It all begins with responding to the 2020 Census.  

“Missing children in the census affects the community for the next 10 years. We want the programs that help support the foundations children need to be available during their formative years,” Austin said.


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Page Last Revised - February 25, 2022
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