More work needed to count all Oklahoma kids in the 2020 Census
Data from the U.S. Census is essential for deciding the distribution of billions of dollars in federal grants, helping private businesses make decisions about where to locate and expand, helping non-profits and public agencies target programs where they’re needed most, and making sure Americans have fair voting representation in state and national elections.
For all of these reasons, it’s essential that Oklahomans are accurately counted in the 2020 Census. Unfortunately, Oklahoma contains many of the hardest-to-count Census tracts in the nation—areas where about one-quarter or more of households did not mail back their 2010 Census questionnaire. In particular, young children under five, who by estimates are about 7 percent of Oklahoma’s population, are undercounted at a higher rate than any other age group.
Why are young children more likely to go uncounted? In Oklahoma and across the nation, poverty is highest among families with children, and poor households are the most difficult to count. Families may not understand that they need to list all members of the household on their Census form, and very young children are the most likely to be left out.
That confusion is compounded for young children with complex living arrangements, such as those living in foster care, with grandparents, or with parents who are cohabiting but not married. Poverty and complex living arrangements for young children are also more common among Oklahomans of color, putting our state’s Black, Latino, and American Indian children at especially high risk of going uncounted.
Besides these longstanding problems, changes in the upcoming Census threaten to make the undercount even worse. The 2020 Census will be the first time that the Census Bureau will ask most households to submit their forms online. However, about 17.3 percent of Oklahoma households had no Internet access as of 2017, and that’s concentrated among the already hard-to-count low-income households.
Also, for the first time, families will be asked about their immigration status on the Census form. The Trump Administration added this question at the last minute, going around the traditional, careful vetting process for any new Census question. Many are concerned that it could intimidate families from filling out the form. The Census has strong safeguards against any of its data being used to personally identify a respondent, but fear of this data being misused remains a challenge.
Making sure we have a complete count in Oklahoma can’t be left to the Census alone, and past Census counts have commonly relied on a broad collaboration in local communities. Reaching everyone in the hardest-to-reach communities requires contributions from on-the-ground partners who best understand those
One good way to facilitate that collaboration is through a Complete Count Committee, which can combine the insights of government officials, health care and social service workers, educators, and private businesses to build local awareness of the Census. Several state legislatures have already formed Complete Count Committees, and establishing one for Oklahoma should be a high priority for lawmakers next year. A coalition including Mayor GT Bynum and the Community Service Council is also developing a Tulsa Regional Complete Count Committee for the metro area.
In addition, you can speak to friends, neighbors, and others in your community about why it’s important to complete the Census form. Accurate Census data is an essential bedrock for our democracy and economy. We can all pitch in to make sure all Oklahomans are counted in 2020 and beyond.
Gene Perry is Director of Strategy and Communications at Oklahoma Policy Institute.