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Monday, April 3, 2000 Missoulian Editorial Saturday was not only April Fool's Day, it was Census Day, too - the day that officially wrapped up the mail-in phase of the 2000 census.

Don't panic if you intended to send back your form and didn't. Pop it in the mail soon and it will be counted: While the government wanted the forms mailed by Saturday, mail-in forms will be processed through April 11 or so.

Or submit the form online until April 15. See the form for information, or check the 2000 census site, www.census.gov, for directions and information.

Or wait until a census worker shows up at your door. Armies of them will begin, starting in mid-April and going through mid-July, to make personal visits to the homes that didn't return their forms.

As of this past weekend, more than half of Montanans had returned their forms by mail; census officials want to hit 70 percent soon, then pick up the others during the door-to-door campaign.

In the meantime, there's been a lot of controversy about whether the census questions - especially those on the long form, which went out to 17 percent of the households - invade privacy. Some sample questions: Do you have one mortgage or two? How much did you earn last year? What is the value of your home? What time do you leave for work?

The worth of the questions seems baffling, but billions of dollars of federal money are doled out based on information collected via the census. What time people leave for work helps government statisticians understand community traffic and travel patterns; whether people have phones helps plan 9-1-1 emergency services; income and home values help divvy up education and community-services money to help the poor.

Individual responses are pooled with millions of others, and the Census Bureau has a good record for keeping individual information private. In 1950, during White House renovations, the Secret Service wanted to relocate President Truman temporarily in a neighborhood and asked the Census Bureau to help with information about nearby residents. The Census Bureau refused. In 1980, armed with a search warrant authorizing them to seize census documents, four FBI agents entered the Census Bureau's Colorado Springs, Colo., office. But a census worker held off the agents until her supervisors arrived, and no information was released.

In 1982, the Supreme Court upheld the Census Bureau's privacy law and denied local access to the information.

There is no doubt that Americans are squeamish about how much personal information is floating about these days.

But census information is neither sexy nor revealing, and the benefits to filling out the form greatly outweigh the downside of revealing a few tidbits of information.

Redirect energy spent complaining about census questions to find protections for information that is truly personal and very vulnerable - medical and mental-health records, financial statements, credit histories and insurance records, for instance.

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