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Counting Young Children in Censuses and Surveys

August 01, 2014
Written by: Frank Vitrano, Associate Director for 2020 Census

There is a well-documented undercount of children ages 4 and under in population censuses. Societies as varied as China, South Africa, Laos, the former Soviet Union, and Canada experience a high net undercount of young children.

As we prepare for the 2020 Census, we will continue to look at ways to produce a more accurate and cost-effective count of the nation, one that is reflective of our dynamic, changing society. We will research how to best reach and include historically hard to count populations, such as young children.

We have seen that for various reasons, young children are often not included on census forms, and as we prepare for 2020, improving this count is one focus of our research.

This coverage error is not unique to decennial censuses. Evaluations have shown that Census Bureau surveys like the American Community Survey, the Current Population Survey, and the Survey of Income and Program Participation also undercount young children, which can result in biased survey estimates.

Federal agencies, state and local governments, and advocacy groups make critical assessments of the well-being of children and distribute funds to support programs for young children based on these surveys’ estimates. Under coverage for this population has far-reaching implications.

Demographic Analysis shows that the undercount of children under age five in the decennial census, and in Census Bureau demographic surveys, is growing.  The 2010 Census, for example, undercounted about 4.6 percent of children aged 0 to 4.  When we look at the differences between Census and demographic analysis counts for adults and young children since 1980, we see noteworthy reductions in differences for the adult population but steady growths in differences for the youngest children.

In 2013, the Census Bureau assembled an informal task force to study the persistent undercount of young children in censuses and surveys. This group met throughout the year to discuss the issue, brainstorm on causes, and review existing data. In the task force’s report, you can find a summary of this problem,  and most critically, what the Census Bureau still needs to pursue in order to improve coverage of this population group in future censuses and surveys.

Along with my decennial managers, I stand committed to reversing this decline in coverage for young children in the 2020 Census. In fiscal year 2015, we will establish a team of experts from across the Bureau to focus on coverage improvement activities for the 2020 Census.  Their first responsibility will be to identify and prioritize key evaluation and research projects. I can promise you that improving the coverage of children under the age of five will be high among their priorities. This team will report to Census Bureau leadership and will be responsible for making sure that this problem continues to receive the attention that it deserves.

In addition, I plan to identify a point person for this specific issue – improving the coverage of young children in official statistics. This individual will serve as an advocate for high quality data for young children and work with both decennial and demographic survey managers to understand and address the causes for this undercount.

We plan to begin coverage improvement work for the 2020 Census in fiscal year 2015. If you have questions about this report, please leave a comment on the blog and we will get back to you.

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