Researchers are warning of the consequences of undercounting young Latino children in next year's census, especially in North Carolina. By some estimates, Latinos make up about 1 in 5 children in the state. A lot hinges on an accurate census count, from political representation to billions of dollars in federal funding.
In the most recent census in 2010, demographers estimate about 25,000 children in North Carolina under the age of 5 were not counted. More than a third of those were thought to be Latino.
"Just based on that undercount, researchers said that North Carolina likely lost one Congressional seat," said Whitney Tucker, research director for the nonprofit NC Child. "Or, it could've gained one that we didn't because we didn't count those 25,000 kids."
Tucker authored a report out last week titled, "The Statewide Implications of Undercounting Latino Children."
"It's really just the biggest deal that nobody's really talking about yet," she said. "And it's a shame, because if we don't start talking about it soon and changing what we've done in the past, we're likely to undercount again and it's going to make it even harder for us to support our population as it grows."
The number of Latino residents in North Carolina is believed to have grown rapidly in recent years. And Latino babies, toddlers and preschoolers are likely to be undercounted, because they share the characteristics of multiple hard-to-count populations.
"Latino children tend to live in households that have limited language ability, in English," said Juliana Cabrales of the NALEO Educational Fund, which promotes Latino engagement in American politics. "Also, Latino children are overrepresented in populations that include renters, low-income families, migrant families – all groups which have a high undercount."
And then there's the citizenship question. Last year a Trump administration official directed the Census Bureau to add a question about citizenship status. That question hasn't been asked in the past. Tucker and Census officials say the addition would lead many immigrants not to respond to the questionnaire.
"Because they either might be undocumented themselves or have family members or people in households who are undocumented, and don't want to bring unwanted attention to their families," Tucker said.
The citizenship question is being contested in court. But Tucker says some of the damage has already been done.
"So even if courts end up striking it down, right, the idea that the government is interested in people's citizenship through census is already leading to public mistrust in immigrant populations," she said.
This is where community members come in, she added.
"We need people out now. Trusted messengers making complete count committees in their neighborhoods and their towns and cities, and telling people the Census was never meant to enumerate residents on the basis of citizenship," Tucker said. "It's just enumerating residents, period."
Complete count committees are public messaging groups made up of local faith, education, and business leaders. They are usually organized by state or local governments.
Tucker said they're meant to be "trusted voices with different families who can learn about the census and then share messages about the data privacy in the census, about the importance of filling it out for your family, about the importance of including member of your family – including young children."
Tucker pulled up a list of state programs with funding at stake.
"So we're talking Title 4e foster care, title 4e adoption assistance, the childcare and development fund that helps to make childcare more affordable," she said, before listing several more programs like food assistance and Medicaid. "A lot of programs people know as family support are funded largely as a result of our census count."
That's why citizens and policymakers need to get the word out, Tucker said.
"That the decennial census is bigger than any partisan or otherwise reasoning around wanting to know who is a citizen in a certain area," she said. "If we let that derail our preparations, we're going to lose out on a lot more than people think."
The census questionnaire will be released on April 1 next year. That may seem like a long way off – but those working towards an accurate count say the time to plan is now.