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Census Begins Home Visits

CHANTILLY, Va. (AP) — Phil Vargas is ready for the icy glares and the slammed doors.

He is one of 440,000 census-takers who on Thursday will begin to fan out from Maine to California to track down approximately 42 million households that did not return a census form.

Vargas, who attended a three-day training session at a library in suburban Virginia, pored over training manuals and heard pep talks from his superiors.

But he knows some people think the Census Bureau asks too many questions, and that he might not be welcomed with a smile and a handshake when he comes knocking on doors.

``I'm not intimidated by that but you have to respect that because it's their home,'' Vargas said. If someone feels the questions he asks ``borders on intruding someone's privacy, it should be respected.''

Exactly how many people feel that way remains to be seen as the census moves into its next phase. In light of recent criticism from citizens and congressional Republicans that some questions on the 53-question census long form were too intrusive, Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt is uncertain about what type of response enumerators will get. But he says he is optimistic.

``The enumerators are what this whole enterprise rests upon now — the quality of work they do,'' Prewitt said. ``But it's hard to tell right now just how many households will not cooperate.''

The job may be more difficult in rural areas, where more people got a long form. The gap in the response rate between the long and short form is 12 percent, twice as much as in 1990.

About 78 million of the 120 million forms mailed were returned to the Census Bureau. Now, it's up to people like Vargas to get information on the missing 42 million households.

Most census-takers will be sent out alone, assigned to locate people in a specific area. In places where safety may be an issue, they will be sent out in teams.

The Census Bureau made a big advertising push earlier this year to recruit workers for the part-time jobs, which pay from $8.25 to $18.50 per hour. Prewitt said they wanted to ensure there were enough census-takers who were familiar with specific areas, instead of sending a stranger into an unfamiliar neighborhood.

Some are retirees like Vargas looking to fill their time. Others, like Peggy Washington, a nurse's assistant from Falls Church, Va., are seeking extra income.

``I did my civic duty and I think everyone should too,'' Washington said.

Julian Romero of Santa Fe, N.M., retired from his government consulting job recently to become a painter but decided to take a census job first. After enumerating rural areas for the last couple months, he will serve as a field supervisor in the Santa Fe County census office.

``Most census-takers are aware they may come across uncooperative people but aren't intimidated by it,'' Romero said.

This phase of the census is the costliest chunk of the $6.8 billion operation, the most ever spent on the once-a-decade count. For the most part, the at-home visits are getting support from Congress, including Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's census panel.

At least one congressman, Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is encouraging people concerned about privacy who get visited by a census worker to ``politely decline'' to answer questions they believe are intrusive.

If they come across an uncooperative person, Romero said ``we train them to be as polite and courteous as possible. My personal advice is not to take it personally and keep smiling.''
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