How School Districts Can Help With Census 2020

Census 2020 is critically important for determining how much money state and local governments receive from the federal government. That is a major reason why states and cities around the country have been worried about the citizenship question and the lack of census funding, which threaten an accurate count. For every person missed, states end up paying more money in taxes than they receive from the government to pay for roads, bridges, healthcare, child care, and education.

Children will be among those most harmed by a census undercount. Not only are children, especially those ages 0 to 4, at a much greater risk of not being counted than other groups, but they’re also more vulnerable to an undercount’s effects. For example, the Census determines how much money states receive in reimbursement from the federal government for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) – programs which provides health insurance coverage to over 46 million children.

School districts can and should be key partners in Census 2020 outreach efforts. In this post, I examine what’s at stake for public school districts across Texas and outline important ways schools can help ensure all children are counted in 2020.

Why children are hard to count

Young children are a difficult population for the Census Bureau to count. In 2010, an estimated 4.6% of children ages 0-4 and 2.2% ages 5-9 were missed. The undercount was even worse in Texas: more than 7% of Texas children ages 0-4 were not counted in the 2010 Census.

Why are children, especially very young children, so hard to count? One reason is that young children are much more likely to be living in hard-to-count households that have multiple risk factors for an undercount, including rental housing, poverty, Hispanic/Latinx householders, limited English proficiency, complex and mixed family households, and living with a young householder (18-29) or non-citizen. When these households are missed, so too are the children who live in them.

Other children are missed even when the rest of their household is counted. Babies born right before the census are particularly vulnerable to being left off of census forms. This also happens more when multiple families share the same household and the youngest children are not related to the head of household filling out the form.

What’s at stake for Texas children

Children have a lot at stake in Census 2020. The Census is instrumental in determining federal funding levels for child care, schools, community improvement projects, and social services. In many cases, there isn’t a one-to-one relationship between the number of people counted in the census and the amount of funding allocated.

But for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), there is a one-to-one relationship between the census count and federal funding. Together, Medicaid and CHIP provide health insurance to over 4.6 million low-income Texas children. A recent study by George Washington University estimates that Texas will lose approximately $1,102 in Medicaid funding and $33 in CHIP funding each year for every person not counted in the Census. In a 1% undercount scenario, which is what occurred in 2010, that amounts to over $3 billion in lost funding over the next ten years.

The undercount could be much worse in 2020. The Urban Institute recently estimated three undercount scenarios – low, medium, and high risk – for Census 2020. In the high-risk scenario, which accounts for higher nonresponse among immigrant groups, the expected undercount for Texas is nearly 2%. If that occurs, Texas is looking at a potential loss of more than $6 billion in Medicaid and CHIP funding over the next decade.

How exactly does the Census affect funding for Medicaid and CHIP? These programs are funded jointly by the federal government and the states. Given that some states are richer than others, the federal government uses a formula, called the FMAP (Federal Medical Assistance Percentage), to determine its share of the cost of CHIP for each state. The FMAP formula relies on each state’s per capita income, or total personal income divided by the total number of people.

That’s where the census numbers come in. When an undercount occurs in a state, the total number of people is lower than it should be. Total personal income, meanwhile, remains the same (this number is based on a different data source). As a result, the FMAP increases (more income per person), making a state appear richer than it actually is, and the share federal funding decreases.

Why school districts should care

School districts across Texas should be worried about an accurate census count of their students. The loss of funding to Medicaid and CHIP harms their students’ health and well-being, and it affects the district’s bottom line. Student health has a huge influence on student attendance – in fact, health conditions like asthma are key drivers of chronic absenteeism. Fewer students with health coverage and access to regular healthcare could lead to more students missing school. And when students miss school, schools lose money because they are funded by the state, in part, based on their average daily attendance.

Depending on the size of the undercount and the characteristics of the population that is missed (such as undercounting low-income families and children), the census could also affect federal funding for key programs like the National School Lunch Program.

And if the State of Texas decides to cover the Medicaid and CHIP shortfall, then they will almost certainly cut funding for public education programs.

Texas school districts at the greatest risk of an undercount

Which school districts in Texas have the greatest risk of an undercount? To estimate the risk of an undercount for every school district, we adapted state projections of the undercount by race-ethnicity and age from a recent study by the Urban Institute. Their projections are based on the Census Bureau’s 2010 post-enumeration survey that estimated the nationwide undercount for different demographic groups.

The Urban Institute estimated three undercount scenarios for each state and demographic group. The low-risk scenario is what we should expect if conditions are similar to what they were in 2010. The medium-risk scenario accounts for new census administrative processes, which include lower funding levels for outreach in Census 2020 due to the addition of the online form. Finally, the high-risk scenario tries to account for adverse social and political conditions, like the threat of the citizenship question, which are expected to decrease self-response rates among immigrants communities and other marginalized groups. (You can read the entire methodology here.)

To calculate each school district’s projected undercount rate, I adapted the Urban Institute’s undercount projections for Texas by race-ethnicity and age. First, I generated statewide estimates of the undercount for every race-ethnic and age combination (e.g., Hispanic/Latinx children ages 0-4). Then I applied these race-age-specific estimates to the demographic profile of each school district (based on American Community Survey 2017 five-year estimates) to generate school-district-wide undercount estimates.

Three Census 2020 undercount scenarios for Texas school districts

In the low-risk scenario, the majority of school districts are expected to experience some type of undercount in 2020, but only a small fraction – eight districts (<1%) – will miss more than 2% of their residents (twice the average for the state overall). In the medium-risk scenario, the share of school districts missing at least 2% of residents grows to 14% (144 districts). In the high-risk scenario, more than 1-in-4 school districts are expected to miss at least 2% of their residents. In fact, 86 school districts could have undercounts as high as 3%.

School districts at greatest risk of an undercount tend to be clustered in large urban centers and all along the border. These are places with lots of young children and Hispanic/Latinx residents. In fact, nearly every school district in the Rio Grande Valley has a projected undercount over 3% in the high-risk scenario. You can search for your school district on the map below to see more information about its undercount risk and the amount of funding at stake (full-screen here):

Some of the largest school districts in the state are at greater risk of an undercount. Among the 25 largest school districts, the vast majority are at risk of missing more than 2% of their residents in the high-risk scenario. Aldine ISD, Alief ISD, and Pasadena ISD (all near Houston), as well as Soccoro ISD (El Paso) and San Antonio ISD are at risk of a 3% undercount in the high-risk scenario. El Paso ISD, Houston ISD, and Dallas ISD could have similarly large undercounts. Even in the low-risk scenario, all of the largest school districts would experience some degree of undercount.

Top 25 Texas districts at greatest risk of an undercount

What could this mean for Medicaid and CHIP funding in these districts? In short: Lots of lost federal funding. The communities within an average Texas school district will lose $3.3 million in Medicaid and CHIP funding over ten years in the low-risk scenario, $5.7 million in the medium-risk scenario, and $7.3 million in the high-risk scenario. Larger school districts will be hit even harder. Houston ISD – the largest school district in the state – could lose up to $520 million in Medicaid and CHIP funding over ten years in the high-risk scenario (2.9% undercount). How much the loss of federal funding will affect each school district’s bottom line will depend, in large part, on whether the Texas Legislature makes up the difference in funding for Medicaid and CHIP.

What school districts can do

School districts and school leaders must play a key role in Census 2020 to ensure every person gets counted. Census 2020 depends on trust. As community partners who are entrusted with the welfare and education of children, schools can act as that trusted voice about the census to vulnerable and marginalized communities who are worried or indifferent about the census. Here are five ways schools can help in Census 2020 education and outreach efforts:

  1. Send flyers home with students. One of the easiest ways schools can help is by communicating directly with parents to raise awareness and educate them about the census. Many schools already have ways of reaching parents, including weekly flyers and folders, phone calls, and emails. As Census 2020 approaches, schools will need to use all these lines of communication. Parents need to know when the census takes place, why it’s important, how to fill it out, and who counts. Many babies and young children are missed because parents do not think they need to be counted. For help with how to frame messaging around Census, contact your local Complete Count Committee or consult with the Census Bureau’s own marketing research and materials.
  2. Host a Census Family Night. Many parents will have questions. Another way schools can help is by hosting a forum with parents and students can come to hear about the census in person and ask questions. Invite local advocacy groups, government officials, academics, and Census Bureau representatives to talk about why the census is so important and answer questions and concerns about issues like privacy. Public in-person events like this will be key to building community trust and a shared sense of responsibility around the census. But it’s also important to make it fun! Why not create a census game that parents and their children can play at the event that teaches everyone how to fill out the form?
  3. Target messaging to parents with young children. Children under 5 are at the greatest risk of not being counted. Elementary schools, especially those with Pre-K programs serving 3 and 4 year-olds, can reach out directly to these parents about the census. It’s important to be aware that parents with young children often have different concerns when it comes to the census. A recent Census Bureau survey found that parents with young children respond more favorably to the census when they hear about its impact on funding for child care, schools and education, and job training programs.
  4. Add Census 2020 to the social studies curriculum. Students also need to be involved in Census 2020. Every social studies curriculum during the 2019-2020 school year, across all grade levels, should have a unit on the census. Why is Census 2020 important to each student’s community? Assign students homework to talk to two adults about the census. Schools should also partner with local non-profits, like Houston in Action, and local Census Bureau officials and have them speak to students during an assembly. The Census Bureau also provides its own curriculum called Statistics in Schools, which teaches students the value of the census through real-life examples and problems. Empowering students to take action and participate in Census 2020 will have long-term benefits down the road: in 2030, the majority of today’s students will be adults who will need to stand up and be counted for themselves.
  5. Teach older students how to fill out the census. Children are typically not the ones filling out the census in the household. But that doesn’t mean they can’t help their parents. Children with parents who are foreign-born and have limited English proficiency should be able to guide their parents through filling out the census form. This will be especially important in 2020 because most people are expected to fill out the form online. In addition to informing students about the history and importance of the census, teachers and staff should teach students how to fill out the form and who gets counted in their household.

David McClendon

David is a sociologist, demographer, and data scientist at January Advisors. You can follow him on Twitter and find his full bio on LinkedIn.