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Census troops ready to call

The roughly 35 percent of us who didn't mail in the forms can expect a visit, or a phone call, or both, sometime within the next 10 weeks.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2000


If you didn't mail in your census form, today could be the day the federal government knocks on your door.

An army of 440,000 census takers, trained to deal with apathy and suspicion, will begin fanning out across the country today to reach 42-million households that didn't return a census form. That includes hundreds of thousands of homes in west-central Florida.

The Census Bureau has a name for all this doorbell ringing and telephone calling: It's called "non-response follow-up."

In other words, it's the hard part.

The massive job should take at least 10 weeks. Local census officials say they'll keep hiring temporary workers to replace those who quit.

"A lot of people go out the first time and don't like it. Somebody slams the door on them, and they don't like the rejection," said Ivan Gartenlaub, census regional director for Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. "It takes a while to get used to knocking on doors asking questions."

Roughly 35 percent of households locally and nationwide haven't returned their census forms -- the same as in 1990.

If you haven't mailed in your form, census takers are supposed to call your home three times and come to your door three times.

"It should be a very short interview," said Mike Vallez, manager of the north Pinellas/south Pasco census office. "They'll have a badge. Their automobile will be marked with Census 2000 cards on the front and rear windshields. We hope people will welcome them."

Not everyone will.

Judging from past censuses, most people will cooperate. But others would rather be left alone.

The Census Bureau's director, Kenneth Prewitt, complains that census takers' jobs are harder than ever because of criticism by conservative politicians and pundits. Critics say some census questions are too nosy, particularly on the 53-question long form sent to one out of seven households.

The 1990 census missed an estimated 8-million Americans. The reasons for that -- distrust of government, high mobility rates, fearful immigrants -- are growing, Prewitt says.

The census takers have been trained to be polite but insistent, to explain why the census is important and to assure people their answers are confidential.

Census jobs typically last four to six weeks. Patrick Whelan, manager of the Clearwater/South Pinellas census office, says most openings are for clerical workers, who make $8.25 an hour, and for census takers, who make $11 an hour.

Despite a tight labor market, the Census Bureau says it has exceeded its recruiting goals in all but a few regions. However, the congressional subcommittee overseeing Census 2000 has voiced concern that the Tampa office hasn't recruited enough census takers.

The door-to-door visits are supposed to be done by July 7. The Census Bureau is still hiring because a certain amount of turnover is expected, said North Suncoast census director Gartenlaub. He has about 1,000 workers to reach about 80,000 households.

"If we need more," he said, "we'll hire more."

Census takers will mostly work alone but will go into crime-plagued neighborhoods in pairs or teams. They'll work daytimes, evenings, weekends and holidays.

They'll have red, white and blue plastic ID badges and black-and-white Census 2000 tote bags filled with questionnaire kits.

They're not supposed to ask for Social Security numbers or ask to come inside a home. Upon request, they must give you the local Census Bureau phone number so you can verify if they're legitimate.

If you still haven't answered their questions after three phone calls and three visits, census takers will move on to the next step: They'll ask your landlord, building manager or neighbors about you.

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