Lemann Playground swimming pool

Children head to the pool at the Lemann Playground swimming pool on Lafitte Avenue in New Orleans.

With a 2020 U.S. Census looming, Louisiana officials must begin to prepare to reach thousands of children from low-income families to ensure they’re counted, or risk endangering funding for essential programs, according to a new report outlining the state of children in the U.S.

Louisiana ranks last overall in economic wellbeing in the 2018 Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which examines the state of children’s health care, education and family and community support.

Louisiana is one of only a handful of states where childhood poverty has increased since 2010, which counted 27 percent of children in the state living in poverty; in 2016, it was 29 percent.

“Living in a low-income family puts [children] at higher risk on these negative outcomes — less likely to be proficient readers by fourth grade, more likely to be in poor health,” says Teresa Falgoust, the Kids Count Program Coordinator with Louisiana nonprofit advocacy group Agenda for Children.

Eighty percent of New Orleans children under age 5 live in what’s considered a “hard-to-count” or "undercounted" population, which measures census mail return rates of 73 percent or less.

Whether those children are counted in the upcoming census will likely determine how much federal support the state receives — to support the children and families not accurately reflected in the census. That means roughly 19,000 children ages 0 to 4 in New Orleans are at a higher risk of not getting counted in the census.

New Orleans census results in 2010 reflected the city’s disproportionate recovery and displacement following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, in addition to people of color and kids living in “complex” households, which could include several generations of families within one home, or young parents living with other family members, which could impact how those children and families are reflected in the census, if at all.

Falgoust says every person that’s counted represents about $1,000 in federal funding. “We can’t afford to have even a handful of kids not counted.”

Louisiana children benefit from more than $2.8 billion in federal funds directly linked to census results, according to the report. That figure includes more than $1 billion for Medicaid and LaCHIP and another $206 million for the Child Care and Development Fund and school readiness program Head Start.

There also is another $35 million for foster care and $950 million for food and family health programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP) and its accompanying program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

As of November 2017, more than 60,000 children in Orleans Parish and more than 67,000 children in Jefferson Parish had access to health coverage through LaCHIP or Medicaid. More than 737,000 children statewide rely on those programs.

In the last decade, the number of children benefiting from SNAP increased 63 percent in New Orleans and 80 percent in Jefferson. Roughly half of all New Orleans children and 36 percent of children in Jefferson Parish benefit from SNAP.

“We know in Louisiana, our population, because we have such high numbers of low-income families and poor children, our kids’ success is particularly dependent on making sure we’ve got enough federal funding for things like CHIP, Medicaid and the SNAP program,” Falgoust said. “When we undercount the families most likely to be undercounted, those families in poverty and really in need of these services, it’s especially concerning. Not only do we not have an accurate total but we don’t have accurate information about what that population looks like. So we can lose out on things like Head Start seats if we don’t start counting kids.”

This year’s Kids Count reflects a dip in the number of children without health insurance, cut in half from 6 percent in 2010 to 3 percent in 2016, a point below the national average of 4 percent. Falgoust accounts for that expanded coverage through the success of health outreach programs, including auto-enrolling children who are verified eligible for health care through their participating in other programs.

But there remain severe racial disparities in health care, as outlined in a recent Data Center report chronicling the institutionalized racism and inequities in health services through the last several generations.

Though the number of low birthweight babies dropped slightly from 10.7 percent to 10.6 percent, the number of low birthweight Black babies (14 percent) is double the number of white babies (7 percent).

“I think one of the keys to really getting ahead as a state is to really start looking at our racial disparities and doing everything we can to make the state more equitable,” Falgoust says. “If we’re able to do that, we’ll see our overall rates improve dramatically.”

Looking ahead to the 2020 census, the report recommends a fully funded U.S. Census Bureau to effectively support its outreach efforts for a more accurate picture of children’s health and wellbeing. It also recommends state and local governments support outreach in underserved communities, including key support among “trusted messengers” like churches, libraries and community groups to help facilitate the census.

But with a push for an online-only 2020 census and the inclusion of a citizenship question, advocates fear it will become more difficult to reach hard-to-count populations; as of 2016, more than a quarter of New Orleans residents do not have reliable internet access, or rely on dial-up speeds only.

New Orleans has started its LUCA process, a local-level verification of addresses that the census has on file, and Mayor LaToya Cantrell is expected to appoint a local-level census liaison to assist.

The next step, Falgoust says, is for the city to open a Complete Count Committee to work with advocacy groups and people in communities to get the word out and combat census-suppression, particularly among undocumented and immigration communities.

“That’s going to be really vital that we get the word out to folks, that there is this big firewall between the information and any other government agency,” she says. “The census has always been there to count everybody in the country, not just citizens.”