WASHINGTON (AP) -- In Florida and Michigan, they stuffed Chinese fortune cookies with ''Census 2000'' messages. In Santa Ana, Calif., traveling food merchants hand over groceries in bags to customers emblazoned with the Census 2000 logo.
These are some of the more unusual things the Census Bureau is doing to get Americans to fill out and return their form, and Census officials say it's working -- despite recent criticism that some of the things asked on the 53-question long form are too intrusive.
As of Tuesday, 62 percent of all forms were mailed back, Census director Kenneth Prewitt said, surpassing the 61 percent minimum goal that officials had set for this year's count.
While some states, particularly in the South, continue to lag behind the national numbers, others have surged ahead, giving hope to Prewitt that they'll get as many form backs this year as they did in 1990.
''I've got my fingers crossed,'' Prewitt said. ''This suggests that we will meet the 1990 rate of 65 percent. That would be quite a serious accomplishment not just by the Census Bureau, but by the American people.''
Response rates have declined each year since 1970, from 78 percent, to 75 percent in 1980, and 65 percent in 1990. Alaska, which again is running last among the 50 states, had the distinction 10 years ago of having the worst response rate -- 52 percent compared with 65 percent nationally.
The Census Bureau will release final response rate figures on April 18. After that, the rate of forms mailed back is expected to be reduced to a trickle, and Census officials will prepare to send temporary workers out to homes that did sent back a form. That operation begins on April 27.
Census officials say they are encouraged by positive numbers in some states and local communities. For instance, Macomb County, Mich. has one of the highest response rates among all counties at 78 percent, and regional director Tom Chodzko says they tried a number of different things there -- including stuffing fortune cookies with ''Census 2000'' messages -- to get people to turn in their forms.
In Santa Ana, traveling food merchants known as ''vendedores'' go through mostly-Hispanic neighborhoods peddling fruit and vegetables. Vendors stuff bags with census pamphlets, then try to reassure customers that information on their forms won't be turned over to other federal agencies such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
''For people who otherwise may not know of the process, they help them not to be afraid of it,'' said Jeanine Kabrich, census spokeswoman in Los Angeles. ''The message is it's OK that you can do this without fear of reprisal.''
Operationally, Prewitt considers this census a success since they passed the 61 percent goal. But he says the bureau is not done in trying to get people to return their forms.
Earlier this month, several congressional Republicans said they were suggesting to people worried about the intrusiveness of the long form to leave certain questions unanswered -- such as ''What is your annual income?'' and ''Do you have plumbing at home?''.
As of Tuesday, 64 percent of all short forms were mailed back, and 50 percent of long forms, Prewitt said. The 14 percent gap went up two points in the last week.
''I suspect that in the next week as questionnaires continue to come in that the mail response rate will inch even higher,'' said Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's census panel. He has urged people to fill out the whole long form.
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