Census Bureau turns to elementary school kids to help create a more accurate count

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When Eagle Rock fourth-grader Sophia Martinez raised her hand to ask a question of Census Bureau deputy director Nancy Potok, Martinez likely didn’t know she was searing right into the heart of a government conundrum: how to win the trust of residents who may fear authorities.

“Like, what do they do with the interviewing, exactly?” Martinez asked, referring to the questionnaires that census workers fill out when they knock at a door. “Do they post it on the internet or anything?”

Fear of disclosing private information to strangers is a major hurdle the Census Bureau faces as it tries every 10 years to accurately count residents of immigrant communities. For example, a recent study found that 400,000 Latino children aged zero to four were missed in 2010 census, likely because their parents either weren't counted or didn't share complete information.

And that has consequences: Census numbers are used to determine public services, many of which would benefit the families and children missed in the counts. 

Now, in an effort to get a more accurate count in the 2020 census, the government bureau is conducting a "test census" in parts of Los Angeles County, as well as Harris County, Texas.  The idea is to spend March through August experimenting with different methods of reaching hard-to-count residents, to prepare for a more accurate count in 2020. Census officials say they hope to survey 225,000 housing units, many of which are in largely non-English speaking areas.

One of the methods the bureau is testing is greater outreach to schools, in hopes of helping students – who might eventually translate or vouch for census workers to their parents – understand the goals of the count. 

That's a big reason Nancy Potok is visiting Dahlia Heights Elementary school in Eagle Rock and conducting a seminar for fourth and fifth graders on the census. 

Potok's presentation is part civics 101 (“when you participate in the census you’re doing something that goes right at the heart of democracy,”) part history lesson (“Thomas Jefferson lead the first census,”) and part census evangelizing (“If you miss a lot of people, it can have a big impact on a community”).

In addition to the school outreach, Potok said her staff are working on apps and other web-based ways of spreading the word and collecting data. But no amount of technology will help if residents don’t know what the census and its purpose is, she said. Kids can be those messengers, Potok added, especially if their parents have limited proficiency in English.

At Dahlia Heights Elementary school, Potok patiently took questions from the eager students. From “what happens if you miss a family?” to “ why is it important to know info about everyone in the house?” Potok painted the big census picture for the students.

In response to Sophia Martinez’s question about whether an individual’s private information is posted to the internet, Potok hammered home her key message: “Absolutely not, you have complete privacy. We never share your information.”

The session then turned interactive as students took part in a mock census, answering basic questions about siblings and pets – no, the actual census does not track pets, Potok told them – and with that, and sporting some new census swag, the kids were off, back to regular school.

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