In April, the U.S. Census Bureau will begin the decennial census of every household in the United States. While the census will be used for several governmental determinations such as apportionment of Congressional seats, the data is also incredibly important to Head Start programs around the country. Why? Because the accuracy of the census will determine the level of federal funding that states and communities will receive for early childhood education programs for the next ten years. Census data is also used to determine federal funding for other programs such as Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that intersect with and are crucial to supporting Head Start families.

While funding for Head Start and Early Head Start is not entirely dependent upon census findings, the count plays a vital role in the overall funding formula established in the Head Start Act of 1981 and subsequent amendments. This formula specifies that some of the funding is given to local organizations by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services based on that state’s population, which comes from the census. According to an analysis of federal funds distribution by the US Census Bureau, Head Start ranks 11th among over 130 federal programs that depend on the census for some or all their funding. Therefore, it is critical for the census in Kentucky to be accurate in its counts of families with children, particularly those living in poverty.

In the 2010 census, over 12,500 children aged 0-4 (the target age range for Head Start and Early Head Start programming) were not counted in Kentucky. The George Washington University "Counting for Dollars" project found that on average, every undercounted person cost Kentucky $2,021 per year. As such, this undercount cost Kentucky approximately $250 million in federal funding for programs serving children and families in need over the last decade.

2020 is not shaping up to be better; and in fact, may be worse when compared to 2010. According to the Urban Institute’s Center on Labor, Human Services and Population, children aged 0-4 in Kentucky may be undercounted in the next census by as much as 15,700 – a 25 percent increase from 2010 with a projected funding loss for the next decade of more than $310 million.

This potential undercount stems from three key factors: 1) interstate and intrastate migration and a changing demographic composition; 2) new census processes emphasizing online completion with less in-person follow-up; and 3) lack of education for census respondents as to how the census data is used and shared across local, state and federal governments.

New for the 2020 census is the large dependence on online completion. While this will aid in generating a greater number of overall responses, rural communities in Kentucky that have less reliable or no Internet access may continue to be undercounted. Ironically, the very collection method that seeks to boost census participation may have the unintended consequence of disproportionately impacting our poorest and most vulnerable families. Therefore, it is critical that community programs like Head Start assist in census education efforts and provide resources through which families may complete the census.

The Kentucky Head Start Association, partnered with other statewide nonprofits through the Kentucky Nonprofit Network and its 2020 Census initiative, is helping to promote the importance of the census to Head Start programs and families in our communities. What can you do? 1) visit the US Census Bureau website to learn about the importance of the census and how it is used; 2) spread the news about the census so that others in the community may become educated and prepared; and 3) get engaged as a part-time census taker or volunteer.

A decade of funding for Kentucky’s Head Start children and families will be impacted by how well we collectively boost awareness about the census and ensure maximum participation across the Commonwealth.

John Mountjoy is executive director of the Kentucky Head Start Association.

The Kentucky Head Start Association champions Head Start programs through a common vision, a united voice, and shared expertise to serve Kentucky’s most vulnerable children and their families.

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