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The U.S. Census has always undercounted the number of SC children. It's a big problem.

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In 2018, there were 56,668 infants born in South Carolina.

Exactly 4,860 of them were from Charleston County; 17,505 in the state were born to black mothers; and 18,992 were born by C-section.

We know all this because the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control keeps meticulous records regarding every birth in the state. 

But when it comes to counting these children in the 2020 U.S. census, some of them will inevitably be left out. That's because young children, from birth to 4 years of age, have always been undercounted when the decennial census is taken by the federal government.

In 2010, the government estimates nearly 1 million children in the United States — almost 5 percent of all children under 5 — were uncounted. This happens for a variety of reasons, experts say, and it creates a decade worth of problems when it comes to allocating money for federal programs that benefit children, including Medicaid, Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the school lunch program.

Funding for Title 1 grants, special education programs and federal foster care support are also allocated based on census estimates. 

"You just don’t think it’s important. But it’s so important," said Bett Williams, with the Children's Trust of South Carolina. "There are a lot of people working on this problem."

South Carolina receives about $7.3 billion in census-allocated federal funding each year, Williams estimated. If children in this state aren't counted properly in 2020, the amount of money South Carolina receives down the road will be impacted. 

"We know we had an undercount in South Carolina (in 2010)," she said. "It’s a priority of Children’s Trust, but we also think it should be a priority for everyone. ... We want to make sure South Carolina receives its fair share."

Children are difficult to count for a number of reasons, she said.

"The ones that are hardest to count are the ones who live in those big, complex households — multi-generations," Williams said.

Children who live with grandparents or other relatives tend to be undercounted, too, she said. The same goes for children who live with parents in transit from one home to another, or who move across state lines. 

Properly tracking these children isn't a problem unique to the census, said Karen Deaver, program manager for the undercount of children at the U.S. Census Bureau. 

"Undercounting children is actually a historic problem," Deaver said. "There’s definitely more attention being paid (to the issue) in 2020 than in previous censuses." 

Here's the rule of thumb: Children should be counted as living in a household if they spend most of their time there. This isn't a question of legal guardianship. It's a matter of which roof the child sleeps under most nights.

If a child splits his or her time equally between different homes, they should be counted as living in the home where they reside on April 1, officially "Census Day." 

The Children's Trust of South Carolina received a small grant to conduct education and outreach about the census to some of the "harder-to-reach populations," Williams said. "If they’re not counted now, we could really be missing all the funding for that child for that decade."

Medicaid funding is particularly important in South Carolina. More than 1 million South Carolinians are covered by the low-income public health insurance program, and most of those beneficiaries are children. The state Medicaid agency will cost nearly $8 billion to run this year and the federal government will cover about 70 percent of those expenses — a larger percentage than in many other states. 

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Students move through the cafeteria line at James Simons Elementary School in Charleston. The U.S. Census has historically under-counted the number of young children in the country. Federal employees and many nonprofit groups are trying to address the problem ahead of the 2020 census. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

A spokesman for the state Medicaid agency said the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the Medicaid program in South Carolina, uses a variety of data sources, including the census, to forecast budgets and properly staff county-level offices, among other things. 

"As the state’s single largest insurer of children, ensuring every South Carolinian is counted during the 2020 Census is important to the state and to (the agency's) data-driven approach to administering its programs," said S.C. Medicaid spokesman Jeff Leieritz.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.

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