More work needed to count all Oklahoma kids in the 2020 Census

At OK Policy, we often use Census numbers to understand what’s happening with Oklahoma’s people and economy. But the Census is so much more than just a convenient tool for policy analysis. Data from the Census is essential for deciding the distribution of billions of dollars in federal grants, for helping private businesses make decisions about where to locate and expand, for helping non-profits and public agencies target programs where they’re needed most, and for 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 5, 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 by those who do not accurately complete the form. 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, who make up an estimated 40 percent of children under 5 nationally. 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.

What can we do to ensure a complete Census count in Oklahoma?

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 in our state will require a diverse contribution from state, local, and tribal governments and on-the-ground partners who best understand those communities. One good way to facilitate that collaboration is through a Complete Count Committee, which can be set up through the Census Bureau. This can be a vehicle to combine the insights of government officials, health care and social service workers, educators, and private businesses to build local awareness of the importance of the Census and how it can be accurately completed. Several state legislatures have already formed Complete Count Committees, and establishing one for Oklahoma should be a high priority for lawmakers next year.

In addition, a nationwide Count All Kids campaign organized through a group of national, state and local children’s organizations and allies, including OK Policy and the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, will work to ensure the Census reaches all of our state’s children. You can sign up on the Count All Kids website to get updates about how you can help.

Lastly, you can speak to your 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.

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to remove no longer relevant information regarding a proposed citizenship question on the 2020 Census.


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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