- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2000

Letters from the Census Bureau now arriving that announce the imminent mailing of census questionnaires are intended to end confusion. And that has left many perplexed.

At least it's puzzling many who deal only in English. As explained below, readers should get the message if they speak Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese or Tagalog, a language of the Philippines.

The bureau has dispatched some 120 million "advance letters" to "housing units" in the continental United States, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Island, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The two-page letters announce in bold letters, "About one week from now, you will receive a U.S. Census 2000 form in the mail."

The letters urge people to "fill out and mail [the census form] promptly." They explain why a census is taken, why it's important, and they invite interested persons to apply for one of the many part-time census jobs still unfilled.

At the bottom of Page One and continuing on Page 2 is a series of statements in foreign languages and alphabets.

Including the foreign languages has prompted inquiries, the Census Bureau says. So has the inclusion of a return-mail envelope. It alone has prompted people to ask why the government is "wasting money" sending an unneeded envelop.

And others have demanded to know why the bureau is announcing something everyone knows that there's going to be a census.

Nowhere in the English portion of the letter is either question answered.

On the bottom of Page One, however, the foreign-language message asks readers to turn to Page 2. There, the foreign-language comments invite those who speak any of the five languages to mark the appropriate box and return their marked letter in the envelope that's included. The messages explain that within two weeks, a census questionnaire in the requested language will be sent to them.

As with many such mailings, postage is paid only on the envelopes actually mailed.

As to the second question, the Census Bureau assumes that despite its $167 million, multilingual advertising campaign, many people especially those who do not speak English still are unaware of the impending census. So the letter alerts them while it helps recruit potential part-time help.

In fact, the letter's invitation to request more information about potential jobs has in two weeks elicited some 500,000 additional queries on the designated Web site.

It's not yet clear how many questionnaires in each of the five foreign languages will be sent. But it is estimated that 99 percent of the U.S. population will be able to respond to the questionnaires in English or in one of the five other languages.

Ten years ago, the census questionnaire was printed in just two languages. But now, besides printing questionnaires in four more, the bureau is providing guides for completing questionnaires in 49 additional languages.

The guides are available from any of the 15,000 aides staffing questionnaire assistance centers.

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