Alabama and the 2020 Census: ‘Whose Child is Missing?’

David Elliot (CHN)

VOICES for Alabama’s Children has developed several strategies to help count the state’s children, including a county by county approach, a state Count All Kids Committee, and a poster that explains which children are at risk of being missed. While every state has unique challenges when it comes to counting all kids in the 2020 Census, other states may find the Alabama strategies to be useful models.

About one in four children in Alabama live in poverty, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data. More than 17,000 young children in Alabama were not counted in the 2010 Census, which, measured by percentage, was much higher than the national average. About one in three households lacks access to the Internet. And the state is rural – very rural, explains Rhonda Mann, Deputy Director of VOICES for Alabama’s Children, a group that is conducting groundbreaking work to make sure all kids are counted this time around. In a recent interview with Count All Kids, Mann said that 55 of the state’s 67 counties are considered rural – some dominated by farm land, others by the timber industry. “We have been in communities before where the sheriff had to drive to someone’s home because they don’t have a phone and there isn’t any other way to get in touch with them. If their child at school got sick, the sheriff just had to drive out there and say, ‘You need to go to the school and pick up your child.’”

VOICES’ work to improve the count has been diverse. Sometimes it involves finding the right messengers for the right communities. Sometimes it is providing local officials with one-page fact sheets about their county’s demographics, or providing information from the U.S. Census or Count All Kids website. “There’s so much information on the Census web site and even on the Count All Kids web site that we could go into information overload and that would not be a positive result,” Mann says. “And so we are intentionally not sharing everything at one time.”

One item VOICES is using to great effect is a poster the group designed titled, “Whose Child Is Missing?”

The poster includes information on how many children were not counted in 2010, how much money Alabama lost as a result, reasons why children may not be counted. And it includes the URL for the Count All Kids web site.

“Initially we had this poster developed to go into pediatricians’ offices,” Mann says. “It’s a nice, bright, colorful piece and very eye-catching. We’ve had a great response to this poster and so we’re co-branding it with our pediatricians’ group in our state. We have a really strong relationship with them. But we realized quickly that this piece can be used in child care centers, in pre-K classrooms, anywhere there are children. Even our Department of Education wants to use it in the elementary schools, and we can tweak it to make it applicable for any situation.” The poster is now available in English, Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese, and VOICES has made it available for modification by advocacy groups in other states through countallkids.org (Please email Jasmine Jones at jjones@foramericaschildren.org if you want the electronic file).

VOICES has been methodical in its approach to preparing for the 2020 Census. In Alabama, by state mandate, every single county has a Children Policy Council (CPC). The CPCs are comprised of local officials such as the juvenile judge, the school superintendent, various elected officials, and also by relevant county agencies such as human resources and public health.

Mann explains that VOICES began by meeting with CPCs in counties all across the state, and from there organized Community Leaders Forums that focus on counting young children, essentially local meetings with grass top leaders. These forums are not to be confused with Complete Count Committees (of which there at least 136 in the state of Alabama, according to the U.S. Census Bureau website); but the entities work hand-in-hand. “We want them to work together,” Mann explains. “Where the Census already has a Complete Count Committee in place, they are asking them to reach out to us and be a part of the Community Leaders Forum.”

In October, VOICES took the next step and formed a state wide Count All Kids Committee, kicking it off with a day-long meeting of about 80 state agencies and nonprofit organizations. This committee was formed to specifically address the undercount of children under the age of five in the 2020 Census. As a collective effort, the committee plans to coordinate with various child-serving agencies and organizations to target this specific hard-to-count community by educating and raising awareness of how important the census is to our state.

VOICES, which was founded in 1992 and is the state’s Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count grantee, views its Census work as naturally tied to its advocacy on behalf of children; after all, it has been said that the U.S. Census is a children’s issue. And getting an accurate count means more dollars to fight child poverty.

“Certainly we know the implication of children growing up in poverty,” Mann says. “Life is just much harder for them and their parents and their families. Fewer resources, higher incidence of crime, higher gaps in educational achievement. There are also gaps in health outcomes.”

Because of the organization’s ongoing work, Mann doesn’t view the 2020 Census as a one-off, but rather as part of an ongoing effort to build lasting relationships and partnerships that will pay off not just in 2020 but years down the road. “This is using Census to build relationships that will be helpful and powerful going forward,” she says. “I have loved every minute of the relationships that have been built. I’ll be very sad if we don’t improve our response rate. But if it doesn’t increase, it won’t be because we didn’t do the work. We can be very proud of the work that we’ve done.”

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