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San Joaquin County readies for census dress rehearsal

Americans are accustomed to the U.S. Census Bureau's once-a-decade head count, but census takers are coming two years early to San Joaquin County.

More than 231,500 census questionnaires are being mailed this month to homes throughout the county as part of a "dress rehearsal" for the upcoming 2010 census.

"It's required by law that people fill out the questionnaires," said Barbara Ferry, manager for San Joaquin's census office. "If they don't, we're going to be at their door bugging them."

The bureau plans to hire about 1,000 San Joaquin County residents this summer to convince people to answer the census questions.

But Ferry said she hopes most residents won't need such personal prodding. She said the questionnaire should take less than 10 minutes for heads of household to complete, and she wants them to do it by May 1. Postage-paid envelopes are provided so questionnaires can be returned by mail.

"We're developing best practices in preparation for the 2010 census so we can get the most accurate count possible," Ferry said. "It's important, it's easy, and it's confidential."

The questionnaires ask for the names, ages, birth dates, sex and race of all residents in each household, along with whether they are Hispanic and whether they own or rent their home. Phone numbers are requested for follow-up questions.

The forms will be mailed in English, but forms in eight other languages will be available on request.

San Joaquin and a nine-county region surrounding Fayetteville, N.C., were picked for the dress rehearsal. Census officials said they selected San Joaquin partly because of its ethnic diversity and its massive housing expansion since 2000.

Being a test site is pumping $12 million into San Joaquin County's economy, mostly because of the jobs it's creating, according to Ferry, who is among 25 staff members who have worked full time for more than a year on the project.

An additional 400 people were hired last spring to walk around the county with global positioning satellite receivers. They established GPS coordinates for every housing unit in the county, including houseboats.

"We spent two days out in the delta," Ferry said.

Starting in June, more than 1,000 people will be hired to work 20 to 25 hours per week for eight to 10 weeks tracking down residents who didn't mail in their questionnaires. They will use hand-held computers to file their tallies.

Those census takers will be paid $14.50 per hour.

"It's the perfect summer job," Ferry said.

More than 4,000 San Joaquin residents have applied for those jobs, passed the Census Bureau's test and cleared background checks. Ferry said those who scored highest on the test will be hired, and it's not too late to apply.

"We more than welcome bilingual applicants," Ferry said.

Workers must be at least 18, U.S. citizens and San Joaquin County residents. They also must swear to keep everything they learn private.

"Every census taker must take an oath of confidentiality that lasts throughout their life," Ferry said.

To apply for a census job or find out more about the dress rehearsal, call 866-376-2008.

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