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Civil rights groups sound alarm about a coming census undercount

Staffing cutbacks, poor planning and inadequate outreach by the federal government all threaten an undercount of minority group members, the poor and rural Americans in the coming census, leaders of civil rights groups are warning Congress.

After failing a decade ago to count more than 1.5 million African-Americans and Latinos, as well as 50,000 American Indians and Native Alaskans, the Census Bureau's planned reduction of local offices and field workers for the enumeration this spring has sparked fears that the 2020 undercount will be even more significant — and with lasting consequences.

Such inaccuracies could result in several congressional seats being given to the wrong states, and billions of dollars in federal aid being wrongly allocated for the next decade, the civil rights advocates told a House panel on Thursday.

"The risk for the nation and the risk for our communities is grave," National Urban League CEO Marc Morial, which advocates on behalf of African-American communities, told the Oversight and Reform Committee.

"When your constituents are not counted in the census, they remain invisible for the next 10 years," testified Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights. "There are no do-overs. We must get the count right the first time."

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Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney expressed concern that will happen, considering the bureau is behind on hiring temporary workers to reach traditionally hard-to-count communities. The count begins this month in Alaska and nationwide in March.

"Cyber threats, limited broadband access, reduced language assistance and gaps in outreach efforts all threaten the success of the Census," the New York Democrat said. "With so much at stake, vigorous oversight of the 2020 Census is absolutely essential."

The once-a-decade headcount not only determines how more than $1 trillion in federal funding is allocated to states but also their number of congressional seats. Based on population estimates the government produced last month, 10 states mostly in the Northeast and Midwest are on course to lose one seat each and seven states mostly in the South and West are expecting to gain them.

Staffing issues aside, the panel also urged lawmakers to pressure the bureau to do more to offset the damage caused by the Trump administration's failed efforts to include a citizenship question on the Census, a lingering fear that may affect response rates within immigrant communities, said Arturo Vargas, CEO of the NALEO Educational Fund, a Latino advocacy group.

The bureau has a responsibility to "provide Latinos and the general public with assurances about the confidentiality of their data," he said.

Thursday's hearing is only the first in a series of Census oversight hearings planned this year, starting next month with testimony from Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, Maloney said.

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