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Let the Counting Begin

EVER feel neglected by the government? The US Department of Commerce will soon take care of that. Its gargantuan census-taking machinery is about to lurch into action. Already thousands of workers have visited crowded tenements and isolated farm houses to check the accuracy of address lists. Later this month 106 million questionnaires will flood the mails - one for every household in the nation, supposedly.

Most Americans will get the short version, seven questions about the people in the dwelling (age, sex, race, etc.) and seven about the place itself (owned, rented, value, etc.) One in five will get the long form, with 45 additional questions.

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No time for all this, especially with that other government form due mid-April? Anyone who fails to answer the questionnaire can expect a visit from one of the 200,000 enumerators preparing to fan out across the land.

The people at Commerce have poured 10 years and $2.6 billion into this count. Their computers have mapped every road in the US - adding or misnaming a few here and there.

The errors that really sting, however, are the undercounts. Minorities have regularly been slighted by the census, along with the big cities where many of them live. A debate is already raging over whether the 1990 count should be corrected - even before it's been taken. Systems of checking and cross-checking are in place. The debate will last at least until July 15, 1991, when the secretary of commerce decides if a correction is justified.

Why the fuss? Because federal grant and assistance programs draw on census data. Because the urgency of social problems - poverty, homelessness, illiteracy - is gauged by what the census tells us. Because seats in Congress and in state legislatures are divvied up according to census population figures.

And without a census, how would businesses, social scientists, and, yes, journalists, target a product or flesh out a ``trend'' story.

So the form may be nettlesome, and the results open to interpretation. But you'd just as well join (an estimated) 249,999,999 other Americans and sharpen your pencil.

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