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Unless you are hiding in a drain pipe, by now you should have received your census questionnaire from the federal government.
The census is a federal tradition dating back to 1790, when President Washington ordered all citizens to form a line and count off by ones, thus establishing that the U.S. population at that time was ``eleventeen.'' In modern times, the census is taken by the Census Bureau every 10 years, as required by the Constitution. (For the other nine years, Census Bureau employees play pinochle while remaining on Red Alert, in case the Constitution suddenly changes.)
How important is the census to us today? Here's a quote from a letter my household received from Kenneth Prewitt, director of the Census Bureau:
``Huwag ninyong sasagutin ang Inggles na form na inyong tatanggapin sa koreo.''
I did not make this quote up. More than half of Mr. Prewitt's letter to my household is written in various foreign languages. As far as I can tell, in this particular quote Mr. Prewitt is saying: ``Anybody who gets sausage and eggs on the census form will end up (something bad) in South Korea.'' This is not a threat that the federal government makes lightly.
Why is the census so important? For one thing, it enables the government to locate its citizens so it can administer programs to them. The census also determines our congressional representation, which is very important. For example, in the 1990 census, a homeowner named Ward A. Frondflinger Jr. of Lawrence, Kan., left his census form out on the dining-room table, and unbeknownst to him, his children filled it out and mailed it in, with the information that his household had 984 million members. Today, the Frondflingers are personally represented by 12 congresspersons and five U.S. senators, and they have their own naval base.
Contrast their situation with that of North Dakota, which, because of poor participation with the 1990 census, wound up reporting that it had a total of only seven residents (the actual number is believed to be much closer to nine). As a result, today North Dakota has zero representatives in Congress and may no longer even be part of the United States. (Somebody should go up there and check.)
So the ``bottom line'' is that it is in your best interest, as a citizen, to fill out your census form. Here's some information to help you:
Q. What kinds of questions does the census form ask?
A. Most citizens will receive the short form, which asks you only for basic information that the government needs to administer programs to you, such as your name, age, sex, race, weight and whether or not you wear thong underwear.
Q. What if I get the long form?
A. You had better know something about calculus.
Q. Is my census information confidential?
A. Absolutely. Nobody is allowed to see your personal census information except federal employees and their friends.
Q. What are my choices regarding my race?
A. You may choose from any of the following federally approved races: Black, White, Beige, Blush, Bisque, Asian, Latino, Caucasian, Person of Color, African-American, Native American Indian, Spaniard, Original Hawaiian, Asian Minor, Native Alaskan, Person of Density, Indian Indian from India, Caucasian-Asian Hawaiian, Hispano-African-Alaskan Native Indian, Ohioan, Native Hawaiian Tourist, Munchkin, Italian Samoan, Wisenheimer and Presbyterian. Or, if you prefer, you may invent your own race, and the government will create a large bureaucracy to keep track of you.
Q. Why does the government need this information?
A. That is none of your business.
Q. I have an imaginary friend named Mr. Wookins. Should I include him on my census form?
A. Of course. The federal government spends billions of dollars on imaginary programs; these must be targeted to reach the people who really need them.
Q. Is there a place on the census form where I can tell the government how much I hate these stupid low-flow toilets?
A. The government has provided margins for this express purpose.
Q. What will happen to me if I fail to complete the census form?
A. In the words of Census Director Prewitt, ``Matatanggap ninyo ang Tagalog na census form sa loob ng dalawang linggo.''
Q. Can he DO that?
A. Do not tempt him.
Dave Barry is a humor columnist for the Miami Herald.