Census Misdirects 115 Million Letters

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As the 2000 Census is just getting under way, the U.S. Census Bureau said it incorrectly addressed 115 million letters designed to motivate American households into promptly filling out and sending back their census questionnaires.


The mistake tacked on an extra digit to the beginning number of each street address.


The address glitch appeared on First-Class letters the bureau sent to 17 million rural U.S. households in February. These letters were supposed to be mailed March 1, but some were sent earlier. The second batch of letters, the 98 million for the rest of the country, are to be mailed today. A postal manager in New England discovered the address error on Feb. 22.


These letters are part of a campaign launched last week by the bureau to reverse declining public response to the count as well as to increase awareness of the decennial census and boost response rates. This is the first time the bureau used an informational mailing in advance of the questionnaire to publicize the census.


The letters inform households that they will either receive a formal questionnaire later this month or that they will be visited by a census enumerator. The letter also provides information about obtaining a foreign language questionnaire - such as in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese or Tagalog - and also contains a toll-free number that can be called for assistance in filling out the forms.


Bureau director Kenneth Prewitt said quality control checks by the printer, Freedom Graphic Systems, Milton, WI, and government officials did not catch the mistake because the contractor changed procedures after a successful, monitored test run, and the flawed envelopes were not seen before they went to the U.S. Postal Service.


Freedom Graphic Systems had a $5.6 million contract with the Census Bureau and was hired by the Government Printing Office to produce the mailings.


According to the USPS, however, the letters would still get to their intended addresses.


"Our automated sorting machines can read the proper address from the barcode on the mail piece," said Judy A. de Torok, manager media relations at the USPS. "We want our customers to know that this mail piece is intended for them and is properly delivered despite the extra digit in the street address."


USPS officials also issued a special alert to its letter carriers so they would not be confused after finding incorrectly addressed letters in their mailbags.


Prewitt praised the postal service for exemplary actions beyond what it would have done for a private mailing.


Prewitt also emphasized that the snafu would not hinder the $6.8 billion decennial head count. He said the faulty mailing prompted the Census Bureau to check its other printing jobs, including the census questionnaires - which most Americans will receive via First-Class mail in mid- to late March - and that these addresses are correct.


"The printing of the advance letter is an operation independent of the printing of census questionnaires," Prewitt said.


He said a follow-up postcard will be sent in April - either a thank you for returning the questionnaire or a reminder to do so - that will be correctly addressed. This process is also separate from the advance letter program.


Prewitt acknowledged that the mistake creates a public relations problem, and bureau officials said the Census Bureau today will begin two new national radio and print ads, in five languages, urging residents to open the census letter when they get home - regardless of the incorrect address.


These ads will run until March 12. The language-specific advertising campaign runs from Feb. 29 to March 12. The Census Bureau's agency of record is Young & Rubicam, New York.


"The agency is taking additional steps with our community partners and through our advertising and the media to stress the importance of opening and reading the advance letter. Every household should open the letter and read it," Prewitt said.


Prewitt's officials also said that the census has checked with cognitive psychologists, who regularly advise the bureau on direct mail techniques, and were told that people will not notice the error.


But Rep. Dan Miller, R-FL, chairman of the House subcommittee on the census, last week announced that he has asked the General Accounting Office and the Inspector General of the Commerce Department - which oversees the U.S. Census Bureau - to do a more thorough evaluation of the situation and its long-term implications on response rates.


"I will work closely with director Prewitt to do whatever else is necessary to address this issue," said Miller.


In addition, he said Prewitt will update the subcommittee when he meets with them March 8. The hearing, which was called to update the subcommittee on current census operations, was scheduled before the current mailing problems were brought to the subcommittee's attention. n
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