American Community Survey: Tell all or be fined

The deadline for responding to the American Community Survey has just passed, and if you were unfortunate enough to be targeted by The Census Bureau and you failed to comply, expect a fine. Photo: Census Bureau

COLORADO SPRINGS, Co., December 2, 2012 ― In America today, tell the government anything it wants to know or be fined. I know because I was one of those targeted this year.

It all began when I received an ACS form in the mail. It was titled “Census 2010.” I’d already answered the 2010 census, so I threw it away. First mistake.

A month or so later I got a phone call.

Someone from The Census Bureau: “You didn’t return your census form. We know you got it. It’s mandatory.” When he asked whether I intended to return the form, I said no. Second mistake.

I was transferred to someone else who politely asked why I didn’t want to return the form. When I said the Constitution only requires a decentennial census and that I’d answered that one, she proceeded to quote me Title 13, U.S. Code, Sections 141 and 193 … blah, blah, blah. I could see we weren’t getting anywhere, so I hung up. Third mistake.

It appears that Congress, in its finite wisdom, passed laws that require citizens to divulge any information the Census Bureau asks for and attaches a fine of $5000 if one fails to comply … sort of. It turns out that the $5000 fine only applies on conviction of a criminal offense related to this census—the “normal” fine for non-compliance is only $500.

The amount of the fine, however, is not the point. The point is government’s ability to coerce any information from me that it wants.

The phone conversation was followed up a couple of weeks later by a letter. The letter reiterated the legal authority claimed by the Census Bureau and noted that a fine for non-compliance applied without specifying what that fine was. (In fact, it was not until the whole thing was over that I discovered the amount of the fine. The amount was never the point.) The letter closed with a statement hoping that I would see the light and cooperate with their agents in future.

By this time I’m quite curious as to why my response is so important to The Census Bureau. In every survey that I’ve ever written or participated in, response is voluntary and a certain amount on non-response is expected. One can even oversample to account for it. This survey, however, is being conducted by government. Government is force. It can coerce. I doesn’t have to take no for an answer.

What are they asking for, anyway?

In the section on housing they want to know details about your property, how many rooms you have, whether you have a mortgage and how much it is, what types of energy you use and how much it costs, how many cars you own, what your property taxes are, how much your property is worth, the size of your lot … and on and on.

And that’s just the beginning. For each person in the house it demands to know educational history, ethnic composition, where they lived a year ago, what sort of health insurance they have, what hearing difficulties, what vision problems; whether they have difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions due to physical, mental or emotional condition; difficulty walking or climbing stairs; difficulty dressing or bathing; difficulty doing errands such as shopping due to physical, mental or emotional condition; marital status; complete marital history, how many spouses, when; children and grandchildren; information on disabilities; employment info, where, when, and two whole pages of work and income inquiry.

The Bureau’s web site helpfully suggests that it will take only 38 minutes to complete the 28-page form.

Standing on principle is fine and good, but what does it really hurt to tell them? Can you think of any purpose the government might use this information for? Remember, this is not a random survey: the responses are tied to your name and address. Although census data is not released to the public for 79 years, the government has access to it all the time.

The simple solution is to lie. This was recommended to me by several otherwise honest and trustworthy people I talked to about the survey. The attitude is that lying to the government is no big deal. Well, I happen to believe that lying is a big deal, so that advice is hard to accept. What’s even harder is the moral choice the government gives me: Give us what we want, be fined, or lie. Three equally bad alternatives.

This from a government supposedly of the people, by the people, and for the people. Sorry, Mr. Lincoln: Despite your recent surge in popularity, that government has not survived.

In Lincoln’s day the census was taken by the local sheriff; today there’s a vast bureaucracy with permanent offices all around the country. In 1850, the first census in which any of my ancestors appeared, they asked for five or six pieces of information and every person’s information fit on one line of a sheet of paper.

Daniel Webster, the great 19th century statesman, wrote,

“I apprehend no danger to our country from a foreign foe … Our destruction, should it come at all, will be from another quarter. From the inattention of the people to the concerns of their government, from their carelessness and negligence, I must confess that I do apprehend some danger. I fear that they may place too implicit a confidence in their public servants, and fail properly to scrutinize their conduct; that in this way they may be made the dupes of designing men, and become the instruments of their own undoing.”

Daniel Webster, the Congressman from Florida, has taken aim at the survey. He’s on the right track and he deserves our support and encouragement.


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Al Maurer

Al Maurer is a political scientist and founder of The Voice of Liberty. He writes on topics of limited government and individual rights.

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