Census takers in 2000 might benefit by spending some time on the nation's playgrounds. Roughly 3.2 percent of all children - more than 2 million kids under age 18 - were missed in the 1990 census, and dress rehearsal results for the 2000 census indicate that the undercount is likely to increase. In Sacramento, one of the sites selected for the dress rehearsal in 1998, 7.2 percent of the city's children (8,134) were uncounted.
Minors made up nearly half of the 4 million person undercount in 1990 and were twice as likely as the overall population to be missed. They may be missed because they reside in housing units not recognized by the census (a converted garage, for example), live in large families that have more members than lines on the census form, or because they don't live with their parents.
For whatever reason, the problem is most serious for the youngest kids (ages 0-4) who were overlooked nearly three times as often as kids aged 10 to 14, and minority children were even more likely to be missed. About 3.2 percent of Asian and Pacific Islanders, 5 percent of Hispanics, 7 percent of blacks, and 13.8 percent of Native American children on reservations were missed, compared to 2 percent of non-Hispanic whites or others, according to a recent report by William O'Hare, demographer for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a nonprofit organization that studies disadvantaged and minority children.
In the 1990 census, children in the South and West were missed more often than children in the Midwest and Northeast, O'Hare says. Undercount rates for individual states ranged from 1 percent in Rhode Island to 4.5 percent each in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. But the average undercount rate of minors in the 100 largest U.S. cities was even higher, at 4.7 percent - 50 percent higher than the national average. The undercount for kids is often highest where the child-poverty rate is high, particularly in the most distressed inner-city neighborhoods, O'Hare says. Oakland, California, with a child-poverty rate of 30 percent, overlooked 8.6 percent of its kids in the 1990 census, while Lincoln, Nebraska, only missed 1.4 percent.
The undercount can cause the private sector to miss valuable business opportunities. Companies that offer child-care services, for example, often locate in areas with high concentrations of kids and could easily overlook places with large undercounts.
Minority children, the ones missed most in the 1990 census, are expected to account for 36 percent of all kids by next year, up from 31 percent a decade ago. In addition, a greater percentage of the nation's children will be living in the South and West (a projected 59.2 percent in 2000, compared to 56.7 percent in 1990), the areas hardest hit by the undercount in 1990. A rising foster-child population may affect the undercount as well, O'Hare says, since the census form often causes confusion as to where a foster child's "usual place of residence" is. The number of foster children increased from 280,000 in 1986 to 438,000 in 1995.
For more information on "The Overlooked Undercount: Children Missed in the Decennial Census," contact the Annie E. Casey Foundation at (410) 547-6600.