MN - The Other Y2K Problem -- The 2000 Census, Some Glitches : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

[Fair use for education and research purpose only]

Published Friday, March 24, 2000

Title: Among things to count in the census: glitches

David Peterson / Star Tribune

Back in January, Ed and Terry Mercer made their way through deep snow to take the test for prospective census workers. The Maple Grove retirees spent 3= hours, Ed Mercer figures. They were told they'd hear soon on whether they'd passed.

"We never heard back from them," Mercer said. "And now they're crying for people. If this has happened to us, I'm sure it's happened to hundreds, maybe thousands of others. Typical bureaucracy."

Christy Brown of Coon Rapids got a letter a few weeks ago reminding her that she was about to get her questionnaire in the mail. The reminder came with a return envelope -- but no explanation as to what it was supposed to be used for. (It was for those respondents needing foreign-language help.)

"People say, 'That's the way the government runs,' " Brown said. "I don't know about that, but it sure is confusing."

If you were disappointed that Y2K turned out to be a bust, welcome to what has been called "the other Y2K problem" -- the 2000 census. So far it has had its share of glitches.

Still, "all systems are functioning, and our mission remains on course," U.S. Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt said this week during an Internet news conference. Much of what needs to be accomplished is being done ahead of schedule, he said.

Among the problems the bureau has faced:

The 115 million letters alerting Americans that a questionnaire was about to come arrived with a mysterious extra digit -- a 1 -- in front of every address. The letters seem to have gotten to the right destinations anyway.

When the questionnaires themselves went out, quite a few people got duplicates -- enough of them that census officials are issuing advisories asking people to send back the one that "best represents your correct current address." But some people got a short form and a long form, and the Census Bureau is warning that those folks may get a visit from enumerators unless they send both forms back.

Census officials in Minnesota sounded the alarm last week over a shortage of workers, especially in Minneapolis. But many who subsequently called to offer to work found that phones rang endlessly.

At least two incoming phone lines do not ring in the office, despite their indicating to callers that they do, explained Bernie Du Clos, a spokesman for the census in Minnesota. "It's very frustrating for the people here, and we're doing all we can to get it corrected," he said.

A tough task

Experts both within the bureau and outside of it emphasize that mounting a census effort every 10 years with a mostly temporary work force is a fiendish task, much more complex than most of us will ever stop to consider.

"The census is a humongous undertaking, when you think about it," Du Clos said. "It's the largest peacetime mobilization of manpower in history. You hear about the glitches, but a high percentage of it is going right."

And observers say that the problems are no worse this time than last. In 1990, the Census Bureau made a last-minute emergency federal funding request when the response rate came in so low that the agency needed to hire extra doorknockers.

Still, experts agree, there are lessons to be learned from this year's glitches. For instance: When you send out an advance letter with a return envelope, explain its purpose in English, not just in the languages of those for whom the envelope was intended.

"That was an error on the bureau's part," said TerriAnn Lowenthal, a Washington, D.C.-based independent consultant specializing in census issues.

The issue of leaving job applicants hanging has been raised at a meeting of the statewide Census Roundtable, a group of government and private-sector leaders coordinating census efforts.

Census officials responded in that forum that they've tried to spread the message that applicants may not get feedback from their tests, but can call for their scores. Only those who achieve a particular score will be hired, but even that depends on how many people the agency needs in a given location.

But Lowenthal said better communication is needed.

"If they are going to recruit and test and then put people in a will-hire status months before the jobs actually start, they need to make very clear to those applicants that their services are wanted and needed, but it will be a wait of several months, and just walk them through the process so they aren't guessing why they have not heard anything for a while."

) Copyright 2000 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.


-- (, March 24, 2000

Moderation questions? read the FAQ