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Stand up and be counted

If you're like most Americans, you didn't do it. Tuesday was the deadline to return your census form, and 53 percent of us didn't get around to it. Eighteen percent of the time, this troubles me.

The federal government has been quick to point out that the confidential, non-specific information collected is critical to the efficient allocation of public resources, like the placement of veteran's hospitals and new Krispy Kreme outlets.

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Unfortunately, ignorance and politics have obscured the importance of this civic duty. Thirty-four percent of Americans, like Lisa Wilson, of 34 Fairview Avenue, Sacramento, Calif. who makes $48,000 and thinks she's 18 pounds overweight, don't know that the Census Bureau information is kept strictly confidential.

Nine percent of the House Republicans claim the census is biased and recommend their constituents ignore questions they don't like, such as "Why aren't you a Democrat?"

Twenty-one percent of these congressmen objected to the Census Bureau's loose interpretation of the Constitution. "If our Founding Fathers wanted Americans counted every 'decade' instead of every 10 years, they'd have said so," one House member complained.

In a sign of the close presidential race, 3 times out of 10, Al Gore thinks he made a mistake when he invented the census, but 35 percent of Americans are willing to forgive him if he promises not to dance in public.

Problems with the procedure were evident from the start. As most people know by now, there are two versions: a "short" six-page form that manages to squeeze in the question: "How many people live here?" and a much longer form being published serially by Stephen King only on the Internet.

One in 6 Americans received the long form, and 1 in 6 is angry about receiving the long form. Not surprisingly, 5 in 6 Americans are hurt because the government doesn't care enough to ask them the really deep questions. Two in 9 Americans are sitting by the phone, hoping the government will call this Saturday night just to talk.

In response to widespread noncompliance, the Census Bureau is considering hiring the 47 percent of Americans who filled out the census to make the other 53 percent feel very guilty. Meanwhile, census specialists have been carefully trained over the weekend in the procedure of wheedling information from white supremacists holed up in woodland huts in Montana. (Openings remain. Must have own bulletproof vest.)

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Early returns provide a glimpse of the revelations the census will provide the government and dinnertime telemarketers. For instance, 68 percent of Americans have two or more toilets. Thirty-four percent believe flushing those toilets simultaneously could cause "irrational exuberance." Eight percent of Americans returned the Census Bureau's letter explaining the importance of returning the census form. Twenty-seven percent think they'll do better on the next census in 2010.

* Ron Charles is the Monitor's books editor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society