Furor over the long form; Census: Complaints about intrusive questions hurt communities entitled to federal aid.


POINTLESS suspicion has made this year's census count more difficult than it should be. Dumb statements by some politicians have only compounded the problem.

That's too bad, because the census information determines the size of federal grants to state and local governments for senior centers, health programs and rural sewer development. If you don't fill it out, you don't count -- and your community could suffer.

Ten years ago, the most pressing issue was correctly counting the nation's homeless population and illegal immigrants. This year, it's the nature of some questions on the long form that has attracted attention. As a result, Census Director Kenneth Prewitt is begging people to return their forms.

Perhaps we are just more cynical than we used to be. (If we weren't, would shows like "The X-Files" be so popular?) It doesn't help, either, that recent revelations have pointed up the Census Bureau's role in helping the War Department identify Japanese Americans for internment during World War II. (This, after the bureau denied for years that it took part.)

Still, it's hard to argue that refusing to fill out the forms is a good idea. The Census Bureau only releases aggregated data; no one can rifle through it to find your personal information.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's antipathy toward the long form may be one reason his home state of Mississippi has one of lowest return rates so far. But with many of the poorest communities in the nation, can Mississippi be better off losing out on the benefits that would come with an accurate count? Do folks in the Mississippi Delta have more to fear from invasion of privacy or from the abject poverty they've suffered partially because of a lack of adequate federal funding?

Closer to home, the Census Bureau says Baltimore City residents have returned only 43 percent of the mailed forms so far; Marylanders as a whole have returned just 58 percent.

Let's get those numbers up before the April 11 deadline. The future of our city -- and our state -- depend in part on an accurate count.

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