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Many ignoring Census forms

March 29, 2000|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Census forms are important for determining political representation, are vital in calculating government grants and are required by law.

They are also widely ignored.

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So far, fewer than half of the nation's households have mailed back their forms from the Census Bureau, which must count the population every 10 years.

According to statistics released Monday, Pennsylvania and Maryland exceed the national response rate of 42 percent.

West Virginia trails the national rate, and Eastern Panhandle households lag behind the state rate of 38 percent.

With 27 percent of households sending back forms, Morgan County has the distinction of having the lowest response rate in the seven-county region.

Morgan County Administrator Bill Clark said he does not know the reason for the low response rate in the county, which was 65 percent and in line with the rest of the nation in 1990.

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Clark said the forms may have been sent late, adding that his form arrived a couple of days ago after his wife called the Census Bureau.

"I hope that's not an indication of the whole county," he said.

The Census Bureau began mailing forms to most areas on March 13.

The agency posted response rates for each county and municipality on its Web site (www.census.gov) and will update the information each day, according to a spokeswoman. A final tally will be posted April 18, she said.

After that, census takers will visit each residence that has not returned a form in an attempt to get an accurate count.

"The more people we get to mail them back it, the less amount of work we'll have to do in getting them to fill it out," said Wayne Kline, the office manager at the Census Bureau's Hagerstown office.

Participation has varied wildly so far.

In Bolivar, W.Va., for instance, only 14 percent of homes had returned forms by Monday. It was the worst rate in the area.

Bolivar Mayor Paul Courtney said he does not know why more residents have not answered. He said town officials do not plan any special efforts to boost response.

"We don't interfere in their business," he said. "I'm not going to tell them to do it. But they'll do it, I'm sure."

Other towns have had more enthusiastic results.

With 54 percent answering, Boonsboro had the highest response rate in Washington County.

Boonsboro Mayor Charles F. "Skip" Kauffman Jr. said town officials have tried harder this year than in 1990 to spread the word. He pointed to estimates that each missed person costs state and local governments about $1,000 per year, or $10,000 over the decade.

"If that didn't hammer the point home to me, nothing would," he said.

Government officials throughout the Tri-State area - and the Census Bureau itself - have been working for months to improve response to the census.

In an effort to reverse a long-term trend of declining participation, the Census Bureau this year launched a $138 million advertising campaign to get people to fill out their forms.

The Hagerstown City Council Tuesday proclaimed April 1 "National Census Day." The Washington County Complete Count Committee will hold a news conference that day to drum up support for the census.

Karen Giffin, Hagerstown's representative on the committee, said the city has included information about the census on its cable station and will add it to its Web site as well.

Sharpsburg Mayor George Kesler said his town's representative has put up posters throughout the town and gives elected officials regular updates.

"We've tried to publicize it as much as possible by word of mouth, and we'll continue to do so," he said. "It's very important to us."

Franklin County's Complete Count Committee has prepared handouts that have been included in church bulletins, according to Gary Norris, the group's staff member.

Norris said officials have sought out representatives from the area's Hispanic community, which is often underrepresented by the official count.

National and local officials face a country whose response to the census has been declining.

Norris blamed a "fast food" mentality that has eroded patience for even minimal tasks.

"I got the long form, and I think it was 14 or 15 pages," he said. "Some of that information is available from other agencies."

Officials also face skepticism from people who distrust the government.

Several officials said they have heard from constituents who resent answering the government's "intrusive" questions.

The Washington County Complete Count Committee has worked hard to dispel such concerns, said Norman Bassett, a member of the group. He said all information collected by the agency will be sealed for 77 years.

"It is not going to get in the hands of a telemarketer. It is not going to get in the hands of the IRS. It is not going to make you more likely for jury duty," he said.

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