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Many Latino children may not have been counted in last census

At Heavenly Vision Educational Center in Compton, 4 year-old Charlenne De Leon instructs the teacher Merleen Wade how to build a water slide out of lego blocks during free play.
Deepa Fernandes / KPCC
A new report says 400,000 Latino children aged 0-4 were not counted during the last Census. One third of this undercount was in California. A more accurate count leads to a more equitable distribution of federal funding for programs like Head Start and WIC.

When census workers knocked on Natalia Ramirez's door in Pico Union back in 2010, Ramirez didn't know if she could trust them. Fearing fraud and wondering what counters could do with information she provided, Ramirez didn't share information about her young children.

“You don’t want to give a lot of information,” Ramirez said. “It’s better to keep it private.”

Ramirez's children were likely among the 400,000 Latino children aged zero to four who were not counted in the last census, according to a new report by the Child Trends Hispanic Institute and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.

Each decennial census involves paper surveys and an army of trained workers who go door to door trying to get an accurate population count, complete with demographic information. There are always people who get missed, and over the years the Census Bureau has increased public service announcements and partnered with community organizations to help get more people counted.

Despite those efforts, researchers found that many Latino youngsters were missed during the 2010 census. California’s Latino little ones accounted for almost one third of the total number of uncounted people, according to the report. Most of these invisible children live in the counties of Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange.

To find the number of children who were not counted in the 2010 census, report authors used data from the last census for the zero to four age group, and compared that to another count conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau – the Vintage 2010 Population Estimate. While the decennial census counts people in the place where they usually live, the Vintage 2010 Population Estimate is based on “updated Census 2000 data and the components of change (births, deaths, international migration, and domestic migration) occurring each year,” according to the report.

In years past, report author William O'Hare said, the Census Bureau has itself done analysis to look along demographic lines at who might have been missed. O'Hare said he was told that for 2010 "the group [at the Census Bureau] that does the demographic analysis didn’t have the money to do the report."

In a statement, census officials said they were working to adapt their communications strategies to ensure a more complete count. "We have several active research groups to shed light on the characteristics of these missed young children and their households and how to count them more accurately," the statement said.

Counting everyone matters, report authors argue, because census numbers are used to determine the distribution of public services, much of which can help families with children.

“A more accurate count of young Latino children in California would mean more money for services like Head Start and WIC [the Women, Infants and Children program], and other programs that serve disadvantaged young Latinos in the state,” O’Hare said.

In a county like Los Angeles, with an acute shortage of preschool seats, more money for federal preschool programs may lessen the numbers missing out on early education.  

So why is it so hard to find and count young Latino children?

Report authors cannot say definitively, but point to factors that may contribute. Latinos are more likely to live in hard to count places like multi-unit buildings, according to the report. Latino families may also be harder to count because they often live in multi-generational households which are  highly mobile. There is even some evidence, the report states, that Latino adults may believe young children do not need to be reported on the census form.

Marissa Gonzalez, a Pico Union mother of three, said fear is a big factor in her community. Gonzalez said she knows many parents who believe that people coming to their apartment might be immigration authorities and they want to protect their children.

“They’re scared, especially when you see in the news that people knock on your door and they take you, and it’s ICE [immigration and customs enforcement.]”