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DEAR ABBY: The largest peacetime operation undertaken by the government is upon us - the 21st Decennial Census.

The Census Bureau has hired 480,000 people, rented almost 5 million square feet of office space, is using 68,000 cardboard desks and will sharpen more than 9 million pencils. The mission, pure and simple, is to count every person residing in the United States. We expect to count about 250 million people and 106 million households.Why? Why does the federal government go to all the trouble to count everyone? Because the task was mandated by Congress in 1790 for the purpose of apportionment - representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Today, it is used for that and for distributing billions of federal dollars a year to local projects and agencies. Nutrition programs, day-care centers and transportation systems are a few.

Many times individuals don't realize programs and services they use are funded by the federal government based on census results. Therefore, it is to everyone's benefit to answer the census.

An individual's answers on the questionnaire are completely confidential. The information will not be given to the IRS, INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service), FBI or anyone else. Only aggregate, or compiled, figures will be available for public use.

So, Abby, please urge your readers to answer the census questionnaire accurately and return it promptly. For every 1 percent of the U.S. population who did not return the questionnaires by April 1, it will cost the taxpayers $10 million. However, if for some reason it was not possible to return the questionnaires by April 1, there is a grace period of three weeks! - MARVIN L. POSTMA, REGIONAL DIRECTOR, CENSUS BUREAU, KANSAS CITY, MO.

DEAR MR. POSTMA: Although it may seem too late to be discussing the census, you make some excellent points. Thank you for a wealth of information concerning census taking, the assurance of confidentiality and the importance of being prompt.

Readers, if you haven't yet mailed in your census form, there's still time. Stand up and be counted!

DEAR ABBY: We know that you are always trying to encourage kids to read more. We are fourth- and fifth-grade students in a special education program. Our teachers, Miss Eschen and Mrs. Gordon, are teaching us to read and learn about the world around us. We are also learning about the various occupations of people all over the United States and Canada.

If you would print this in your column, asking your readers to send us a picture postcard from their great cities and tell us their occupations, it would help us to learn to read and to learn more about our neighbors.

We will read the postcards and find the cities on the map. By the end of the year, we hope to have a whole wall covered with postcards. I know this will help us to become better readers.

It would be nice if your readers could pick a name from the list of kids in our class and send one of us a picture postcard showing the city it came from. Thank you very much. - JEFF, JAIME, JARED, THIETRA, JUSTIN, SAM, MICAH, DUSTIN, OMAR, DESIREE, ALEX, LUIS AND KARL

DEAR STUDENTS: You and your teachers are to be congratulated for a very imaginative technique to encourage reading and to learn more about the great cities around us.

Readers may write to the children in care of Patterson School, 400 E. Patterson Road, Santa Maria, CA 93455.


C) 1990 Universal Press Syndicate