Internet counts little for census

Pssst: Don't tell anyone, but you can fill out this year's census form on the Web.

March 13, 2000|By Joyce Cohen | Joyce Cohen,N.Y. Times News Service

With forms for the 2000 Census scheduled to arrive by mail this week in most parts of the nation, people may not know that for the first time they will be able to fill out their census questionnaires on the Internet.

But even as the Census Bureau has embarked on an advertising campaign to encourage participation in the nation's decennial head count, the use of the Internet has remained something of an open secret within the agency -- which has not gone out of its way to advertise the Internet option.

Edison Gore, assistant division chief for field programs at the Census Bureau, said census officials prefer that people stick to the "tried and proven" method of pen and paper. "We know what's going on there, and it's very controlled. The Internet is something new."

That is primarily because census officials, concerned about security, did not proceed with Internet collection until late 1998. As a result, Gore said, they did not have time to test it as thoroughly as they would have liked.

Census forms can be filled out electronically at the bureau's Web site (www.census.gov), although Gore said that the site is promoted as an informational tool, not as a means for submitting data.

The icon leading to the on-screen form is at the top of the page, labeled, alternately, Form Help or Census 2000, or people can go directly to the questionnaire site (www.2000. census.gov).

The census sends out two forms - long and short. Only people receiving the short form with a mere seven questions asking about such subjects as gender, birthday and race of household members will be able to answer electronically. Nationwide, five out of six households an estimated 100 million out of 120 million will get the short form. A greater proportion of these go out in urban areas.

The remaining households will receive the long form. It asks about 34 topics, including languages spoken at home, grandparents as child-care providers and plumbing facilities in the residence. Those paper forms must be filled out and mailed back.

People who wish to submit the information electronically will still need the paper form, which contains a bar code with a 22-digit number that must be entered to call up the on-screen version.

The site, which will operate until April 15, includes guidance for completing the form. And if people run into trouble - for example, if their browser is incompatible - the site suggests they revert to the paper form.

The main census Web site tells all about the census including why people should participate and how they can get temporary census jobs. Guides can be downloaded in 49 languages.

The site also features arcane information, so people can see how common their last name is, say, or search for the latitude and longitude of their ZIP code.

The census, which dates from 1790, uses the data for the reapportioning of congressional seats and the distribution of federal money. It suffers from a low response rate. In 1990, only two-thirds of the nation's households returned their forms.

Mail response rates are lowest among urbanites, renters and minority groups. In the 1990 census, that low response resulted in an estimated under-count of 3.2 percent for New York, double the national rate.

Census officials say that Internet collection is unlikely to encourage responses among the poor and other groups that traditionally do not answer the census. Pat Valle, the bureau's area manager for Manhattan, said that the electronic version is "geared toward people who are perhaps very busy but are computer literate" and are willing to answer quickly.

For those people who don't respond to the census because of concerns about confidentiality, the agency emphasizes that personal census information is, by law, kept private for 72 years. It is withheld from all government agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"We don't share information," Gore said. "We can offer those same assurances with Internet collection as we do with paper collection."

The Census Bureau says that information sent to the site over the Internet is heavily encrypted. Still, transmitting data electronically adds a layer of concern about security. The idea of Internet collection had been around for years, but concerns that hackers could break into the system kept officials from proceeding until 15 months ago.

There has been growing "public acceptance of the Internet for submitting financial data, in terms of tax forms, e-commerce, giving a credit card number and so forth," Gore said, "so we felt that it was worthwhile to resurrect this as a good idea."

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