The New York Council on Children and Families: How State Agencies Can Make Sure Kids Are Counted

David Elliot (CHN)

How can we make sure that young children are accurately counted in the 2020 Census? One answer is rooted in the work of a small and effective state agency in upstate New York, which is working to ensure that state government plays its part.

Among all 50 states, the New York State Council on Children and Families is a leader in working with its member state agencies to promote the 2020 Census and make sure that all kids are counted. Its work could serve as a roadmap for other states to follow as they grapple with coordinating the work of state agencies, local and state nonprofits, and advocates who are working to get the word out about the Census.

A look at the 2010 Census – and the number of young children (ages 0-4 years old) who were missed, both nationwide and in New York – demonstrates the challenges the Council faces. In New York, it is believed that more than 54,000 young children were left uncounted in 2010 – in terms of sheer numbers, that’s the fourth-highest undercount in the country, behind Texas, California and Florida. (However, many other states, especially low-income states such as Mississippi and West Virginia, had higher undercounts as a proportion of their population.)

Cate Teuten Bohn is a Research Policy Analyst at the Council. She believes New York state government has a solemn responsibility to help ensure an accurate count – as well as a self-interest in doing so. She also believes other state governments share this responsibility and self-interest.

“I would certainly recommend that every state highlight the undercount of young children and do what they can in messaging to make sure every parent correctly fills out the Census form,” she says. “I think state agencies are uniquely poised to educate their constituents, their state residents. I see state government as being helpful in that regard, to raise awareness and provide information to communities.”

The Council has already conducted focus groups with families and helped state agencies update the Census Bureau address list. Now the Council is preparing for the next phase in its outreach – Get Out the Count. This involves identifying trusted community partners and training them in effective Census outreach, including establishing a Complete Count Committee in every community. These committees ideally would include representatives from (or people who have expertise about) businesses, schools, child care providers, faith-based institutions, government, health care facilities, libraries, service organizations, technology, and job trainers.

In NYS, the Governor has asked every executive agency to develop an outreach and education plan for how to incorporate the Census 2020 information in their daily work. For example, the Department of Labor will be designating resource room computers for Census use in the Career Centers across the state with reminder messages and ads on waiting rooms TV monitors. The Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) sends out a “Dear Provider” quarterly letter to 18,000 child care providers which will include the Census topic in early 2020. Child care providers will be asked to encourage families to complete the census, licensors will remind child care providers to promote the census with families, and 37 child care resource and referral centers will also promote the census with families. OCFS runs a Spanish language Twitter account that will include Census reminder messages in 2020.

The Council on Children and Families will activate its member agencies to hang up Census Process posters (English and Spanish) in WIC offices and health clinics, regional state government offices, schools, etc. as it has done in previous decennial census years – although this census is even more important to New York State. The Council has a close collaboration with Head Starts and strong connections to Community Action Agencies and Office of New Americans. It has developed a coloring sheet with a letter to parents about the importance of the Census to NYS that it will share with the early childhood field. Most of the Council’s products such as the Census Process poster are translated into the six most commonly spoken languages in New York.

For Teuten Bohn, the importance of the 2020 Census is not just ensuring that New York receives all the funding it is due in areas ranging from schools to child care to Head Start to housing. It’s also promoting good governance – and the relationship between people whose lives are enriched because of these services and their local government.

“We all have an opinion about what the government we want is and we all have an opinion about what the government we will pay for is,” she says. “I think the Census brings up all of these issues…What type of society do we really want? What type of society are we willing to pay for?”

The question, “how do we ensure an accurate 2020 Census?” is, simultaneously, fundamental and complicated. There are many answers. One answer is the work of the New York State Council on Children and Families. Other states – and advocates in other states – should take note.

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