American Community Survey

I’ve recently become aware of the American Community Survey. And I am outraged at this overreach of government and violation of Constitutional principles and protections.

If you are blissfully ignorant of the ACS, as was I, allow me to disrupt your pleasant Sunday afternoon by sharing the gory details with you. Oh, take a moment to pour an adult beverage first. You’ll need it.

"Results from this survey are used to decide where hospitals and fire stations are needed."

“Results from this survey are used to decide where hospitals and fire stations are needed.”

Each year, approximately 3.5 million US households are randomly selected by the US Census Bureau to receive the ACS. It arrives in your mailbox in a large official envelope bearing the legend YOUR RESPONSE IS REQUIRED BY LAW. There have been some efforts to make it voluntary in the past, but it remains mandatory as of this writing.

“If it’s voluntary, then we’ll just get bad data,” said Kenneth Prewitt, a former director of the census who is now at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “That means businesses will make bad decisions, and government will make bad decisions, which means we won’t even know where we actually are wasting our tax dollars.” NY Times, 20 May 2012

So what is it?

As you are undoubtedly aware, Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution requires a decennial census for a very express purpose. This purpose is limited to enumeration to determine the apportionment of “Representatives and direct Taxes.” That’s it. This, of course, began to be perverted quite early on.

Started in 2005, the ACS “replaces” the long-form census questionnaire that was formerly randomly assigned to households during the regular census years. This survey contains an amazing range of intrusive questions. Here are just a few of them, and please note that these are summaries of the very detailed layered queries:


Seriously? Don’t ALL 5 year olds have difficulty bathing and dressing?

  • your name and phone number
  • gender (only the traditional male and female are given check boxes)
  • age and birth date
  • race
  • relationship of all persons living in the home
  • year the building was constructed
  • actual sales from agricultural products from the property
  • does the dwelling have hot and cold running water
  • does the dwelling have a refrigerator
  • does any resident have a computer, including mobile devices
  • how do you get ‘net access
  • how much were all your various utility bills last month
  • does anyone receive Food Stamps or SNAP
  • do you have a mortgage or home equity line, and how much is your payment
  • what is the market value of your home
  • what are your property taxes
  • what time did you leave for work LAST WEEK (emphasis theirs)
  • what is your income from all sources, including child support
  • for whom do you work, what is the address of your employer and what do you do for them
  • how much education did you receive and in what major is your degree
  • where did you live a year ago – provide complete address
  • how many times have you been married and what’s your current marital status
  • in what year did you last get hitched
  • are you raising grandchildren
  • do you have a disability
  • do you have difficulty climbing stairs or bathing
  • number of persons living in the home

(Wait, what? They actually ask a question for which they have authority? Or anyway, they would have authority to ask it were this a decennial census.)

All of these questions, by the way, must be answered for each and every person living in the home. 28 pages in all, if there are five household members.

The Census Bureau freely admits that this entire process is a time-and-hassle burden (FYTW!), providing a “burden estimate” of 40 minutes right on the back of the form and in the brochures accompanying the letter from John H. Thompson, the director of the CB. If one were to actually provide accurate information for the detailed financial questions, it would require gathering of documents and calculations and would take far longer than 40 minutes if your papers are not perfectly ordered. (My total water bill for the last 12 months? Um….)

What happens to the data?



Now, all other considerations aside, filling out this form and popping it into the mail seems like a field day for an identity thief. In fact, the ACS seems so intrusive and shady to so many people who receive it, that consumer hotlines regularly get phone calls and emails asking reporters to look into it. Austin’s Bob Cole asked Politifact to check it out when he received it. Even the bureaucrats at the Census Bureau realize it sounds suspicious! (See the second question on their own website at right.)

If you are concerned about mailing a form with all this info, you can simply respond to the survey online using the code on your form and a PIN they will assign you when you start the process. Yes, answering invasive government questionnaires from your personal computer seems like a fine idea.

But, hey, don’t worry. The Census Bureau is keeping your information confidential! We all know there has never been a problem with information security in government. Even the tags on FAQs on the ACS website seek to reassure you. “Keywords: security, online, safe, legitimate.”

Surely, too, there has never been a case of a government worker misusing their access. After all, the very pretty “Frequently Asked Questions” brochure that accompanies the form in the mail tells you that every Census Bureau employee has taken an oath and is subject to jail, fines, or both if they disclose “ANY information that could identify you or your household.” I feel better already.

How is the data used?

1 in 38 households receives an "invitation" to participate.

1 in 38 households receives an “invitation” to participate. (click to enlarge)

“The American Community Survey helps local officials, community leaders and businesses understand the changes taking place in their communities. It is the premier source for detailed information about the American people and workforce.

“When you respond to the ACS, you are doing your part to help your community plan hospitals and schools, support school lunch programs, improve emergency services, build bridges, and inform businesses looking to add jobs and expand to new markets, and more.”

Yep, that means Starbucks is using this data to decide where to erect another tribute to burnt coffee. Which, you know, means jobs for your neighborhood hipsters and convenient access to overpriced coffee for you.

The Rutherford Institute has a handy article which expands a bit on the ACS and how the data is put to use:

“The Bureau lists 35 different categories of questions on its website and offers an explanation on how the information is to be used. For 12 of those categories, the information is used to assist private corporations. For another 22, the information is used to aid advocacy groups, and in nine of those cases, the Census Bureau states that the responses will be used by advocacy groups to ‘advocate for policies that benefit their groups,’ including advocacy based on age, race, sex, and marital status.”

Help me out here. I’m a little rusty on the Constitution. Which Article covers Target and Home Depot using the government to do their market research for them at the expense of citizens? And certainly the advocacy groups must be in there somewhere, too….

What are the penalties for refusing the invitation to participate?

According to Title 18 U.S.C Section 3571 and Section 3559 you can be fined up to $5,000 and/or imprisoned. However, nobody seems to have been penalized for failing to attend this particular soiree.

It is far more likely that you will simply be hounded and harassed by Census Bureau field agents.

In order to collect the required American Community Survey (ACS) data, we use a multi-part strategy, including Internet, mail, telephone calls, and personal visits.

First, we send a letter to let you know your address has been selected for the ACS.

Then most respondents receive instructions to complete the ACS online. If the survey is not completed, we send you a replacement questionnaire in about two weeks.

If we still do not receive a completed survey, we may attempt to call you from one of our call centers. You may also receive a telephone call if you completed the survey, but clarification is needed on the information you provided.

If we cannot reach you by phone, we may send a Census interviewer to your address to complete the interview in person.

If you think this sounds fairly benign, read through the 900+ comments on this article. Even discounting the, er, less stable commenters, there is a clear pattern of harassment for not playing along and voluntarily giving up your privacy.

What can you do about it?

See how happy we can all be if you just get with the program?

See how happy we can all be if you just get with the program?

This is certainly a perfect opportunity to be a thorn in the side of your Congress humans. Not that I think they will care one little bit. Unless perhaps your Representative happens to be Daniel Webster, Jeff Duncan, or Justin Amash.

You can try simple avoidance techniques, but those field agents are a wily bunch and very determined not to let your privacy remain intact. Perhaps it’s better to take the advice of the Rutherford Institute and hit it head on. They’ve provided strategies in the article linked above and have created a form letter that you may send off to the Census Bureau.

Good luck!

As for me, I’m going to go pour another drink.