Survey seems intrusive; should you fill it out?

December 11, 2012

To say that some people are suspicious of the federal government is an understatement.

At times, it seemed this year’s election would turn on voters’ feelings about the government’s role in our lives. Perhaps it did.

I got a sense of this earlier this year, when a Rehoboth woman told me she had received in the mail a copy of The American Community Survey from the Census Bureau.

She was leery of the survey, to say the least. She said it asked for personal information the government had no business knowing, such as the relationship among people living in the same residence.

Not only was asking for this information wrong, she said, it was unconstitutional: The Constitution requires only a count of the population every 10 years - nothing more.

I looked that up. It’s almost true, but the actual wording provides sufficient justification.

Article 1 Section 2 of the Constitution directs Congress to conduct an “enumeration” within three years and “within every subsequent 10 years, in such manner as they shall by law direct.” (Italics added.)

In other words, Congress can conduct the census as it sees fit.

But later I saw a copy of the American Community Survey and understood why someone might be apprehensive.

First, it is exhaustive. In addition to the usual questions about age and race, the survey asks about your education, your indoor plumbing, whether you’re a renter or an owner, even how long it takes for you to get to work. It takes about 45 minutes to fill out.

Second, it says that you are required by law to complete the survey, with a penalty of up to $5,000 if you don’t. Yikes!

That got my attention. I called the bureau and was connected with Patty Schmitt, who works for the Census office in Tuscon, Ariz.

She explained some things about the survey, making it sound less ominous. For example, she had never heard of anyone being fined $5,000.

(In fact, I couldn’t find an example of anyone being fined anything for not answering. If you know of someone, I’d be curious to hear. Also, the stiff penalties cut both ways. Census Bureau employees who disclose personal information obtained by the survey can be fined $250,000 and be sentenced for up to five years in jail.)

People often think of the census as being held every 10 years, but now - like much else in modern America - it never stops.

What happened, Schmitt said, was that Congress found the 10-year census information was becoming outdated too quickly.

To solve this problem, Congress 15 years ago mandated the American Community Survey. In addition to the count taken every 10 years, Schmitt said, the Census Bureau each month mails 235,000 surveys all over the country. You may receive one, but your neighbors may not.

“Eventually, every single address in the country will receive one,” she said.

Schmitt said the Census Bureau is not interested in people as individuals, but as members of a community. She said the bureau doesn’t even care if the legal names of household members are used.

The idea, she said, is to “to paint a picture of the community.”

Also, the bureau considers some questions more important than others, with housing, for example, being among the most important.

The information is used in many ways, including economic development.

“Business don’t consider moving without this information,” Schmitt said. “They want to know if they will have the workers.”

The information is also used to forecast all sorts of community needs, such as health care and transportation.

Sam Cooper, longtime mayor of Rehoboth Beach, recommended that residents put aside their fears and complete the survey.

“I’ve never heard of the Census Bureau doing anything untoward with them [the statistics],” he said.

And some of the numbers, such as the median income, are important in terms of how much help a town might receive from state government.

As Schmitt said, all the questions are tied to a program or service. “It’s a way to allocate tax dollars.”


Don Flood is a former newspaper editor living near Lewes. He can be reached at

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