Census bureau to use new ways to get replies in 2010

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Next April, a questionnaire from the U.S. Census Bureau will appear in your mailbox ? and government officials really hope it won’t get tossed in the junk pile.

So, short of begging, they’re trying out some new tactics to encourage everyone in America, regardless of immigration status, to fill out the form and send it back.

On Saturday, Census Bureau Director Robert Groves held a news briefing in Seattle to talk about some of the strategies. (Think census story lines in a Spanish soap opera.)

And he emphasized the ease of the 2010 questionnaire. The form has been condensed into only 10 questions, making it one of the shortest since the first one, in 1790. The bureau wants to surpass the 67 percent return rate from 2000.

“It should take a household about 10 minutes to fill this out,” he said.

Census data are used to apportion congressional seats to states and distribute more than $400 billion in federal funds to local, state and tribal governments each year. The information also factors into what community services to provide.

But filling out the form, or getting a knock on the door from a census taker, can spark anxiety in some families, especially those who come from countries with oppressive regimes, Nickels said.

However, he said, “you have nothing to fear.”

Groves added it’s a crime for government officials to release personal data gathered during the census.

“We could go to jail for five years and be charged with a $250,000 fine,” he said.

The government is undertaking a more than $300 million advertising campaign next year to increase census participation, he said. Television, radio, and billboards are just some of the outlets that will be used to drum up awareness.

“Sesame Street” will have characters talking about the census. And the Telemundo network is writing a census character into its popular telenovela “Mas Sabe El Diablo,” Groves said.

Non-English-speaking households can call a number on the back of the form to request a copy in any of five languages: Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Russian and Spanish. It also will be available in Braille.

Groves said if the questionnaire isn’t returned, the government is forced to send a census taker to the residence. And that gets costly.

“Here’s the one thing people can do to save the federal government money,” Groves said.

Officials say filling the form out is one of the most important things people can do for the country.

“It’s history,” Nickels said. “It’s the record of our nation.”

(c) 2009, The Seattle Times. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.