Millions of children have learned their numbers on "Sesame Street," where Count von Count has, for decades, embodied the joy of counting. He is, of course, notoriously meticulous: He will leave no subject untallied, to young children's delight.
But "Sesame Street's" commitment to counting was never limited to the count. Sesame Workshop has encouraged people's participation in the U.S. census since 1980, when Maria on "Sesame Street" was hired as a census worker and Big Bird helped her count everyone in the neighborhood.
We did that because the census — which is conducted by constitutional mandate every decade to count every single person living in the United States — has serious implications for the health and well-being of families and communities across the country.
Here's why: The census determines not just the number of representatives every state gets in Congress, but also where more than $1 trillion in federal funding goes each year. This funding supports community resources like school districts, hospitals, public transportation and programs that directly benefit children, including public health insurance, foster care and special education. It's also often used by state and local governments to direct funds for emergency preparedness, make decisions about public safety and answer questions about how legislation would affect communities.
Babies and children have been historically undercounted in the census, even though they stand to benefit or lose the most from the decisions about how funding is apportioned based on its count. For instance, in the 2010 census, 1 in 10 children under age 5 — more than 2 million total — were left uncounted.
If children are missed in the census count, their communities won't receive funds to provide them with the support they need; if they don't have that appropriate support, they aren't able to achieve their full potential.
Experts all agree that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated all these risks.
COVID-19 has hindered census takers' ability to conduct their usual door-to-door interviews in person, and it has eliminated the community events where many people — especially in rural areas — would otherwise learn about and complete the form.
Concerns about delays in U.S. mail have added to the concerns that, even if people do complete the mail-in forms, the forms may not be received on time.
The deadline for finishing the door-to-door count has repeatedly changed, as well: It was originally scheduled to end in July, but the Census Bureau announced in April (with the support of the president) that it would instead continue counting in the field until Oct. 31, before it announced in August that it would end its counting on Sept. 30. (The bureau has said this is necessary to meet its own statutory reporting deadline, but former census directors have warned that it could lead to an incomplete count.) This weekend, a federal judge in California issued an emergency restraining orderhalting any winding down of their work until a court hearing on September 17 because, with that expedited deadline now fast approaching, an accurate count is at great risk.
All of these factors could have devastating consequences for children and families, especially those in hard-to-reach communities.
Projections for an inaccurate count of children in 2020 were more severe than in 2010 even before the COVID-19 pandemic. We must work together to reverse this trend, or millions more young children will get fewer of the resources they need to thrive. And those ramifications will endure for 10 years — nearly an entire childhood.
The greatest question, of course, is why increasing numbers of young children have been left off census rolls with every passing decade. There is no one answer, but it's often because of misunderstanding. Some families aren't sure whether to count newborns or babies. Some children live with grandparents or other relatives or split time between caregivers. Some are in foster care, or their families are experiencing homelessness. Perhaps the family itself is relocating between homes.
All of these scenarios can create confusion about how to answer the questionnaire — an issue that is magnified in households where English is not the primary language.
For pediatricians, who work to keep all children healthy, going beyond routine medical exams has become more and more important. This year, that has meant making sure that parents complete the census and include their children. The American Academy of Pediatrics is mobilizing pediatricians to urge families in their practices to fill out the census as part of a nonpartisan Get Out the Vote effort, which includes a "prescription" to make sure every child counts — on the census and at the ballot box.
And Sesame Workshop has produced a series of public service announcements and other materials that explain why families should count every baby and child who lives with them, even temporarily, as well as how the census brings critical resources to communities and how important and easy the form is to fill out.
We must be as diligent as Count von Count when it comes to counting our children. It is our moral obligation to seize this once-in-a-decade opportunity to improve the collective well-being of our nation's children. Together, we can help every child, in every community, get counted in the 2020 census.