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GO BACK TO BASICS ON THE CENSUS

For more than five years now, this page has been urging the U.S. Census Bureau to pare down the questionnaire it sends the public every 10 years.

We have done so because the census has escalated far beyond the original simple nose count and has become increasingly long, complicated, intrusive and expensive.So expensive that the bill for the tally has mushroomed from $1 billion in 1980 to $2 billion in 1990. If current trends continue, the figure could far exceed $3 billion by the turn of the century.

Moreover, as the Census Bureau has asked increasingly detailed and personal questions, voluntary compliance with the survey has fallen off. This despite the fact that the census is the basis for determining the size of various federal appropriations and how many U.S. representatives the states get.

So it's encouraging to see that some such streamlining looks increasingly likely even though it may come not out of principle but from economic necessity.

Soon after Labor Day, the U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote on the next budget for the Census Bureau and is expected to approve deep cuts already authorized by the House of Representatives.

Like just about every other part of the federal government, the Census Bureau must make some sacrifices - sacrifices expected to go beyond personnel cutbacks to include a shorter, more simplified census form.

That prospect displeases social scientists, marketing firms and others who use the admittedly valuable demographic information provided by the census. But so be it. Let them hire private pollsters to gather the same data and pay the tab out of their own pockets instead of soaking the taxpayers.

Besides, the census asks Americans too many questions anyway. In addition to tallying population numbers, the census-takers are now required to gather data on people's income, age, marital status, race, citizenship, ancestry, education, language, military service, disability, transportation habits and many other matters.

Though such information is useful, it's not essential. Moreover, after experimenting with four different types of forms, the Census Bureau confirmed the obvious - namely, that the shorter the form, the higher the response rate.

It's about time the Census Bureau got the message that bigger isn't always better. Now, let's finally get back to shorter, simpler and cheaper.