By Scarlett Liriano Cepin
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the 2010 census, parents of some 1 million children, left their kids off their households’ census form — and that was a costly mistake.
“Census data is used to decide how $675 billion in federal public funding is spent every year,” said Casey Smith, communications director at the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development in Harrisburg, Pa.
“The $26.8 billion Pennsylvania receives annually for its 16 largest federally-funded programs amounts to about $2,000 per Pennsylvanian each year, but that amount could change depending on our 2020 census count,” said Smith.
That’s because funding decisions are based on the number of people living in each state. State governments give grants to cities and towns. The money is spent on crucial services that many kids rely on, such as school breakfast and national school lunch programs, as well as hospitals, housing, and road repair that benefit everyone, she said.
In September 2018, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed an executive order creating the Governor’s Census 2020 Complete Count Commission. Its job, said Smith, is to make sure all Pennsylvanians — no matter who they are or where they live, their citizenship status, or background — are counted once (and only once) and in the right place in the 2020 census.
The commission is made up of representatives from colleges and universities, businesses, community and nonprofit organizations, religious communities, and health care organizations. Elected and appointed representatives from all levels of government work with them, too.
Feyisola Akintola, who works for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s Office of Equity, remembers early meetings between the city, the county, and their foundation partners in which they strategized about how to decrease the number of Pennsylvanians who were miscounted — or not counted at all.
In her role as special initiatives manager, programs like Welcoming Pittsburgh help to build bridges between the city’s many cultures. She also works with the Office of Equity’s team to help residents and communities have equal access to opportunities and feel welcome. It made sense to target and educate populations that are traditionally undercounted, including people of color, immigrants, rural populations, older adults, multi-generational households, non-English speakers, children of single parents, and youth.
The Complete Count Committee Education Subcommittee brainstormed how they could reach school students from high school all the way to preschool, especially because children under the age of 5 are among the most undercounted, Akintola said.
They considered having a video competition. Others wondered what they could put in a kid’s backpack so they could take it home.
Enter an innovative children’s book: “We Count!,” put out by a nonprofit publishing company that creates books for parents who rarely see their stories, concerns, strengths and constraints reflected in commercial publishing or media.
At first glance, the book, produced by Lisa Bernstein and Dr. Faith Lamb-Parker, might seem like any other children’s counting book. But it’s much more than that.
“It’s not just a children’s counting book,” said Lamb-Parker. “When ‘We Count!’ is read aloud, children learn about counting, colors, and cultures. Adults learn basic, yet essential, information about why it matters to be counted in the 2020 census.”
“We Count!” was created with input from researchers across the country. But Bernstein and Lamb-Parker really learned why people were hesitant to participate in the census or were likely to leave their children off the form by talking to parents, grandparents, and early childcare providers across Paterson, N.J. After speaking to those folks, the two understood that everyone was concerned about privacy. Many undocumented families were especially worried about sharing information on the census form, especially since many Paterson residents had been deported in the last two years, said Bernstein.
By law, the Census Bureau cannot release any information that identifies a person.
“Census answers can’t be used against an individual, and the Census Bureau has a team of cybersecurity experts monitoring and protecting their technology — and your data,” Smith said.
Some families leave their children off the census because it can be complicated to figure out where to count their children. For example, on page 10 of “We Count!,” readers meet a family of five: Frankie, his brother Tomas, and his sister, Nina, who live with their grandparents, Nonno and Nonna. But, their grandparents live in a building that is only for senior citizens. If anyone asks, Frankie, Tomas, and Nina pretend they are just visiting.
“Who should be counted?” the book asks. The answer is all five of them. Frankie, Tomas, Nina, and their grandparents all count on the census.
“We Count!” explains that neither the kids nor their grandparents will get in trouble for those answers; instead, the information is used only to answer big questions about communities — like how many people live in this city? What are their ages and ethnicities?
True answers to the census help everyone understand what people and communities need. If the census shows that a neighborhood has many young children, the local government can plan to open another school, change laws, or build new housing so children, like Frankie, Tomas, and Nina can live without worry.
Since children aren’t able to represent themselves, it’s up to their families to recognize the value of filling out the census form as accurately as possible. The book offers a simple format that helps people understand why this is important.
The City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County ordered about 3,800 books in different languages, which they will distribute to kids and families for free. But the book is part of a nationwide campaign. So far, 500,000 books have been printed.
Organizations serving hard-to-count communities can order the books at wecountkids.org. Organizations needing help to purchase the books can request help at the same site by signing up for the “gift registry” option.
By sharing the book, census partners hope traditionally marginalized families nationwide recognize themselves in both the stories and illustrations, each of which is created by an illustrator who is from the culture their art represents. And it’s available in 15 languages: English, Spanish, Bengali, Arabic, Armenian, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Farsi, Punjabi, Russian, Tagalog, Haitian Creole and French.
The 2020 census is happening now. You can respond online, by phone, or by mail. If you are filling out the census for your home, you should count everyone who is or will be living there as of April 1, 2020.
“Their voices and their participation in the census and in democracy counts. That’s the story of America, “ said Bernstein.
“You might be living in a group housing situation (like a dorm or nursing home), apartment, or house. You might be experiencing homelessness,” said Smith. “Regardless of your living situation, you count. It also doesn’t matter what your citizenship status is, how old you are, or your gender. If you live here, you matter to the census.”
Scarlett Liriano Cepin is an iGeneration Youth reporter living in West Hempstead, NY. Read more stories at igenerationyouth.com. This story appears through a partnership between iGeneration and the Pittsburgh Current.