The decennial census is a constitutionally required count affecting the apportionment of congressional seats, electoral district redistricting, and the direction of an estimated 1.5 trillion public dollars (PDF) each year. However, as in previous censuses, structural factors led to the systematic undercounting and overcounting of different communities in the 2020 census.
Children of immigrants and some people of color are at particular risk of being undercounted in the census and missing out on their fair share of political representation and public funds. This has negative consequences for the one in four US children who has an immigrant parent—and the nation as a whole. Whether children meet their full potential partly depends on whether they receive the support and resources, both public and private, they need to grow into productive adults.
Structural factors caused the undercount of some people of color, immigrants, and young children
The 2020 Census did a fairly accurate job counting the total US population, according to postcensus analyses. But it undercounted Black people, Hispanic or Latinx people, Native Americans, and young children and overcounted white and Asian people.
Multiple factors contribute to inaccurate census counts, including structural barriers and a history of inequitable government treatment that disproportionately affect these groups. For example, people of color are more likely to be renters because of discrimination and a long history of racist policies and practices, such as redlining. Immigrants face parallel challenges that lower their homeownership rates. Renters, in turn, are at greater risk of being undercounted because they may have moved around the time of the census date or reside in multiunit buildings that are sometimes inaccessible physically for census staff.
Barriers to employment and residential segregation have also led more people of color and immigrants to live in households with complex family or nontraditional housing arrangements. These arrangements elevate the risk of being undercounted partly because of unclear instructions and limitations of census forms. Lack of clarity about whether or where young children should be counted also contributes to their undercount.
Further, while trust in government is a challenge to the census and was already a concern for many immigrants (PDF) because of the public charge rule and other policies, the politicization of the 2020 Census exacerbated this fear for immigrant families. The proposal to include a citizenship question on the census, despite being struck down in court, was seen as an intentional effort to decrease immigrant participation and was feared to have a chilling effect on immigrant families’ participation.
Structural factors also affect children of immigrants and their families
Children of immigrants also face these structural barriers and may have been at an even greater risk of being undercounted because they’re at the intersection of these groups. According to 2019 estimates, households with children of immigrants were more likely to rent than US households overall. Among immigrant households with the youngest children (younger than 5), nearly half rented, making them especially at risk of not being counted in the 2020 Census.
An inaccurate census count and inadequate data could harm the nation’s future
The consequences of undercounting and having inadequate or inaccurate census data on children of immigrants play out today and will have consequences over the coming decades. Children of immigrants account for one-quarter of US children, and the nation’s future is tied to theirs. Being missed in the census count means these children and their communities may not receive their fair share of public resources and government representation, locking in existing inequities and discrepancies in political power.
The undercount and inaccurate data also undermine programs like Head Start, Medicaid, and the National School Lunch and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs by decreasing public resources and funding where they’re most needed.
Additionally, businesses use census data to decide on investments and new locations. Inaccurate data can perpetuate food, health care, and child care deserts, further depress home values and wealth in communities that structural challenges have already harmed, and increase the likelihood that these communities will be undercounted in the future.
How policy and people can help
Policymakers, researchers, and stakeholders can take steps to address these challenges:
- States can consider using the Census Bureau’s adjusted estimates or alternative measures to distribute state resources, including K–12 funding to localities. Nonprofits and citizens can also push for the federal government to consider using alternative measures in resource allocations. Participating in the Census Count Question Resolution process is a way some localities try to improve census data and surveys used in policy and research.
- The Census Bureau can also improve how it counts people and collects data through surveys.
Potential improvements include prioritizing in-person efforts for harder-to-reach communities. Using administrative data like tax returns to more efficiently capture easier-to-reach groups included in these records can free up resources for groups who are more difficult to count.
- The Census Bureau and government can work to rebuild trust with immigrant and other communities by working more effectively with community organizations and trusted messengers (PDF) and building guardrails around census processes.
Public programs and policies could help all children meet their full potential and alleviate the structural barriers they experience and that especially impact children of immigrants and children of color. These programs have a positive return on investment, resulting in a stronger economy that benefits everyone, but public programs need accurate data to meet their goals.