A little girl dances on the sidewalk, bouncing and skipping and shaking her pigtails to Ciara’s “Level Up.” The piece of paper she’s holding up to the camera reads “Level Up Challenge”; the other words on the page fade from view in the strong midday light. Her parents filmed her dancing as part of a challenge from the Instagram account @ChicagoBabiesCount, which shared the video as part of its initiative to encourage Chicago parents to count their kids on the 2020 Census.
@ChicagoBabiesCount popped up on my Instagram feed just after Census Day on April 1. Their posts are curated, featuring pictures of happy babies, young kids, and their parents, with captions providing information on how to fill out the census and why it’s important. Although Census Day has passed, the response submission deadline has been extended to August 14 because of the COVID-19 crisis.
“If a newborn was born before April 1st, then be sure to include them on your Census response,” reads one. “Census funding helps children of all ages get the services they need like schools, community centers, parks, and playgrounds” reads another.
Nationwide data shows that kids younger than five is the age group at highest risk of being missed in the decennial census count. In the 2010 census, nearly a million kids in this age group were not counted, according to the Census Bureau. Of those, according to data from Forefront, the Illinois association of nonprofits and grantmakers, around 100,000 of these kids were in Cook County.
A report from the George Washington Institute of Public Policy estimated that Illinois lost at least $953 per year for every person missed in the 2010 count.
That means less funding for SNAP, Medicaid, early childhood programs, and other essential services.
That’s why Centers for New Horizons, the nonprofit behind @ChicagoBabiesCount and its sister Facebook and TikTok pages, is going the extra mile for census outreach this year.
“You can’t afford not to do this,” said Dana Garner, Centers’ project director for census outreach. Garner said that by counting kids who are currently under five, “you are building a foundation for children” so that when they are older they will “have summer jobs, … have parks to play in.”
Garner said that “parents being parents, not having the time to do it,” is a big reason why kids in this age group are undercounted. They may have the perception that “it doesn’t impact them right away,” she said.
Studies suggest that living in a “hard-to-count” tract, where there are historically low census response rates, may contribute to an undercount among young children. Kids are also at higher risk of not being counted if they belong to a multigenerational or complex household—where parents share custody, or a grandparent or other family member cares for the kids—or to a household that rents and moves often.
Latinx and Black children are the most undercounted kids nationwide. The net undercount of Latinx kids was 7.5 percent, while the undercount of Black kids was 6.3 percent, according to an analysis of 2010 census data.
Chicago ranks second in the nation for the number of Black residents and children under five who live in hard-to-count tracts, and third in the nation for Latinx residents, according to a 2019 report by the Chicago Urban League.
Centers has been providing early education and other family-oriented support since 1971. It has centers in Bronzeville and south suburban Riverdale, as well as a newer center in Austin. All of these neighborhoods have been classified as “very high risk” for undercounting children by the CUNY census mapping tool.
Like many other social service agencies, Centers stands to lose funding if the undercount of young children in Illinois continues or increases from 2010. But it’s also well poised to reach parents in hard-to-count areas across the South and West Sides.
Centers hadn’t planned to use social media for census outreach. They started out by selecting and training ten parents from childcare centers around the city to serve as “parent ambassadors” within their own communities.
“We picked larger agencies so we could have a larger impact, on the South Side, West Side, and East Side—a little bit on the North Side, but we found that it was a little oversaturated with census programs,” Garner said. The idea was that Centers would train these parents to conduct outreach, so they could “reach back into childhood programs [where their kids are enrolled] to make sure those children were counted.”
But then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and the shelter-in-place order made in-person outreach for parent ambassadors difficult and unsafe, so Centers shifted its outreach online.
“We recognize that parents, and especially young parents, will be on social media for hours,” Garner said. So Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok were natural places to continue their outreach.
So far, the Level Up challenge, which got parents and kids dancing and posting to their Instagram stories about the census, has been one of their biggest sources of engagement, though they’ve also had success with “tagging challenges,” where people can win a giftcard by tagging friends on a @ChicagoBabiesCount post. One recent tagging challenge sent a donation to a local daycare agency with the most votes. Several of the parent ambassadors, who Garner said are continuing their outreach over the phone and web, have made photo and video cameos on the Instagram page, too.
Offline, Centers is also sending out census information at select food pantry locations, too. So far, Centers’ followers number in the hundreds, Garner said they snagged a like from the mayor’s Instagram page recently, and said to keep an on on the accounts because they have other engagements planned for the next few weeks.
She hopes that their newly launched accounts, and their challenges, will encourage parents and children to learn about the census in a fun and engaging way.
“They are our future,” Garner said. “We cannot wait ten years from now, if we really value our children.”
Emeline Posner is a senior editor. She last wrote about how home-visiting services for young moms and babies are adapting to the circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis.