In Prince George's County, volunteers set up tables outside the Redskins stadium before last weekend's playoff game to promote the 2000 Census. Alexandria and Arlington are printing a pro-census comic book. District officials have urged ministers to tout the count during sermons.

They hope to counter apathy, fear and hostility about the national population count and turn around a decades-long trend of declining response rates. In 1990, just under two-thirds of American households bothered to return their forms. In the District, only 56 percent did.

Yesterday, U.S. Census Bureau officials announced "90 Plus Five," their own campaign to improve the count by getting every locality to raise its response rate by 5 percentage points above what it reported in 1990. Officials said localities should sell the census as a "civic ceremony" of public involvement, not just a vehicle to allocate money and power.

"The census serves as a barometer of the country's civic health," Census Director Kenneth Prewitt told a news conference. "Our task, as a nation, is to use Census 2000 to do something about the current levels of public indifference and cynicism."

But there also is a practical reason behind the drive to persuade more people to participate. For each percentage point of non-response, the bureau must hire 12,000 people to visit households that do not return the forms. Despite Prewitt's call for a higher response, the bureau's budget assumes a 61 percent response rate, lower than in 1990. If it's lower than that, Census officials will have to ask Congress for more money.

Some people--including immigrants and those living in illegal housing--often are afraid to return the forms, a fear Census Bureau officials are trying to address with firm promises of confidentiality. But Prewitt said most people who do not respond simply don't care--and that is the group targeted by the new campaign.

From March 27 to April 11, when most households are returning their forms, the Census Bureau plans to publish a daily scorecard on the Internet for each of the nation's 39,000 localities.

The bureau is pushing the count as a high-minded act of civic good, but most campaigns in the Washington area will focus on money and power. Political boundaries are redrawn based on census figures, which also determine the allocation of $185 billion a year in federal grants and often dictate where schools, hospitals, businesses and other facilities locate.

"When you break it down and tell people who have wants and needs how much money we have lost over the past decade, it hits home," said Elizabeth Hewlett, chairman of the planning board in Prince George's County and leader of its census effort.

Prince George's County lost $200 million in federal funds during the 1990s because so many people were not counted, she said. Only two-thirds of its households returned the forms in 1990, and bureau follow-up missed thousands of residents. Nationally, those missed Americans disproportionately are poor or minorities.

Prince George's County officials, who have made bright purple census buttons for themselves, plan to talk up the census at Metro stations and community meetings. Short census videos run regularly on the county cable station.

Across the Potomac River, in Alexandria, posters in four languages--English, Spanish, Farsi and Urdu--will be plastered on public buses. The census comic book will be given out in schools and health clinics. Officials hope to print T-shirts for newborns that read: "Don't forget to count me, too!"

In the District, volunteers passed out information at last weekend's Ramadan festival at the D.C. Armory. Ministers are being urged to talk up the census in March in their sermons and church bulletins. Public schools will be asked to hold census assemblies.

Wanda R. Alston, a special assistant to the mayor who is coordinating census activities, said yesterday she thinks the District has "an excellent chance to raise our rate."

Hewlett also is optimistic about Prince George's County.

"If you don't believe right from the start," she said, "you don't have a chance."

Census Seeks Rapid Mail-In Response

U.S. Census Bureau officials launched a campaign yesterday to increase the mail-in rate for 2000 Census forms, which would lessen the need for expensive follow-up visits by census takers.

1990 mail response rates for area jurisdictions

District 56%

Maryland

Howard 76%

Montgomery 76%

Anne Arundel 74%

Frederick 74%

Prince George's66%

Charles 65%

St. Mary's 57%

Calvert54%

Virginia

Fairfax 76%

Falls Church 75%

Stafford 74%

Fairfax City 72%

Fauquier 72%

Loudoun 70%

Prince William 69%

Arlington 68%

Manassas 66%

Manassas Park 65%

Alexandria 65%

U.S. average 65%

SOURCE: Census Bureau