Down for the Count

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The 2000 census numbers have already cost New York State two seats in Congress, as well as access to funding and crucial services. But city kids stand to lose a whole lot more.

A child-focused analysis of the millennial count is still in the works, but just-released findings from 1990 census data are instructive. A recent Census Monitoring Board report reveals that more than one-third of all infants in four of New York’s five boroughs went unreported in the 1990 census. What’s more, their big brothers and sisters have gone missing, too. The 1990 survey failed to record 116,000 Empire State residents under age 18, 77,000 of whom lived in the city. While the census skipped 3.6 percent of children and 1.6 percent of the general population nationally, New York City’s undercount came in at 4.3 percent of kids, 3.3 percent in general. Though preliminary 2000 national numbers indicate the child undercount could be under 2 percent, that’s still higher than the predicted overall undercount of 0.96 percent.

And just in case you were wondering, stats also show that poor, black and Latino youth are over-represented among unreported children. New Census Monitoring Board data finds up to 18 percent more poor kids than indicated in the 1990 census. And the Casey Foundation reported last year that black and Latino youngsters were missed at rates two to three times that of their white counterparts.

The consequences of missing children in the census can’t be overstated: Fewer kids means less money for a host of vital children’s programs. “The school lunch and breakfast programs, maternal and child health, Title I for education for poor children, Medicaid,” lists Gail Nayowith, executive director of the Citizen’s Committee for Children. “Every single thing you can think of is based on a population estimate.”

And funding isn’t the only area to get hit when children don’t get counted–basic program planning suffers, too. Population numbers are used in everything from assessing community need to the nitty-gritty of delivering services; if those numbers are bad, kids get short shrift. Across the board, New York has more children than expected, and it shows. In 1996, fully half the public elementary schools in the city were over capacity.

The problem with an undercount isn’t so much that funding is lost; rightful funding never gets allocated in the first place. In a city of 7.4 million, 77,000 children is not a huge number. “But when dollars are allocated on a per child basis, it means we have 77,000 fewer resources,” says Nayowith.