The 1986 interim census being conducted in southeast Los Angeles County and the San Gabriel Valley has encountered a low return rate on the questionnaires distributed March 14, a Census Bureau official said.
More than 240,000 households in 18 communities received the questionnaire and were asked to return them on "Census Day," which was March 16, but have up to three weeks from that date to turn them in before census-takers start canvassing neighborhoods.
But the "response we're getting is very low," said John Ramirez, a bureau spokesman. "The census is really deteriorating."
The interim census is one of two held in the United States this year that will help the bureau refine techniques in gathering data for the national 1990 census. The other one is in Mississippi.
Ramirez said the response rate in an off-census year should be about 50%. But the rate is "not anywhere near that," he said. He warned that if the rate does not reach at least 50%, more census takers will be needed and the cost will "go up enormously."
He also said important census statistics could be "lost or not as good" as a result of the poor turnout.
The questionnaires have 17 questions on incomes, age, race and sex of residents and type of housing, are being processed at a Laguna Niguel facility.
The Southeast and San Gabriel Valley areas were selected for an interim survey because of their large numbers of ethnic minorities and multiple-family dwellings.
Communities to be counted are Bell, Bell Gardens, Commerce, Compton, Cudahy, East Los Angeles, Florence-Graham, Huntington Park, Lynwood, Los Nietos-West Whittier, Maywood, Montebello, Monterey Park, Pico Rivera, South El Monte, South Gate, South San Gabriel and Willowbrook.
Residents who have questions about the form can have them answered by calling a toll-free number, 1-800-523-6417, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday through April 11.