Why activists say the census may be the biggest threat to Utah kids

It’s not poverty, lack of health care, poor education or disease that is the biggest threat to Utah children — but something unusual that may affect all of those issues, advocates for children warn.

It’s problems with the 2020 census that may undercount kids — especially minority children whose parents may be reluctant to respond because of new questions about their U.S. citizenship. That would lead to less federal money, distributed according to population numbers, making it back to the state for key programs.

“With potentially 9 percent of Utah’s kids at risk of being undercounted in the upcoming 2020 census, federally funded supports that have driven youth success are in jeopardy,” says Terry Haven, deputy director of Voices for Utah Children.

Advocates for children nationwide raised similar warnings at the release Wednesday of the annual 2018 Kids Count Data Book by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It looks at numerous categories that affect the well-being of children, but worried most about the upcoming census.

“A major census undercount will result in overcrowded classrooms, shuttered Head Start programs, understaffed hospital emergency rooms and more kids without health care,” said Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Casey Foundation. “We will count on children of all races and ethnicities to build America’s future, so the country must count all children in this upcoming census, so we can direct funding to meet their needs.”

Besides concerns about how the new U.S. citizenship question will affect the population count, the Census Bureau has warned about problems with underfunding — which led it to delay outreach and education planning and efforts. Also for the first time, it will rely mainly on online responses.

The new data book said about 4.5 million young children live in neighborhoods where the census plan has a high risk of undercounting them — from high-minority areas to American Indian reservations and rural areas with less connection to online resources — and where conducting door-to-door follow-ups may be tougher.

Haven, with Voices for Utah’s Children, said, “A child undercount will impact the amount of funds Utah will have to help change the trajectory of worsening health trends” identified in the new data book.

For example, it noted that Utah saw an 8 percent rise in its child and teen death rate between 2010 and 2016, ranking Utah 20th. And it had a 3 percent increase in the percent of low-birthweight babies, dropping the state from No. 12 in 2010 to No. 20 now.

Despite such problems, Utah ranked No. 6 in the nation for overall child well-being.

In its four major subcategories, Utah ranked No. 1 in “family and community” (measured by such things as teen births, children in high-poverty areas and children in single-parent homes), No. 7 in economic well-being, No. 12 in education and No. 19 in health (where Utah ranked No. 40 for children lacking health insurance).