Dear American Citizen:
How many times have you been married?
How much money do you make?
Do you have hot and cold running water in your house?
If you went to college, what did you major in?
Do you have difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions?
How many acres of land does your house or trailer sit on?
If I asked you those questions myself, I would understand if you told me to mind my own business. But it’s not me asking, it’s the United States Census Bureau, and your cooperation is not optional. It’s mandatory, and the penalty for telling the Census Bureau to mind its own business is a fine of up to $5,000, though there is no record of any fine actually having been imposed on anyone.
The Census Bureau asks these questions of some 250,000 randomly selected households a month, in 24 pages of what it calls the American Community Survey, and you won’t be surprised to learn that some red-blooded Americans object.
One objected yesterday in an indignant phone call to me, demanding to know why she should reveal such private information to a government agency, and I had to admit I didn’t know.
It was easy enough to find out, however, with the quickest of Google searches. The caller didn’t have a computer, so she was at a disadvantage.
The Census Bureau began these surveys full bore only in 2005, as a substitute for and expansion of what used to be the census long form.
The stated purpose of them is “to determine how more than $400 billion in federal and state funds are distributed each year.” Questions about disabilities like memory loss, for example, might shape employment or transportation policy, according to the Census Bureau.
The answers are supposedly held in strictest confidence and may not be shared with anyone, “not the IRS, not the FBI, not the CIA, not with any other government agency,” the Census Bureau assures us, though we all know that computers get hacked and laptops get lost, as critics point out.
And critics there are aplenty, including not only my irate caller, who demanded to know, “What’s this country getting to be?” but also libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul, who demands to know pretty much the same thing.
Paul introduced an amendment to legislation last year that would have blocked funding for the survey. “The amendment was met by either indifference or hostility,” he later complained, “as most members of Congress either don’t care about or actively support government snooping into the private affairs of citizens.”
There is certainly a constitutional question.
The Constitution authorizes only an “enumeration” of the citizenry, every 10 years, for purposes of apportioning representation in Congress. It doesn’t say anything about any ongoing survey of personal matters for purposes of determining the distribution of state and federal largesse.
So, not surprisingly, some Americans refuse to cooperate, and many of them maintain blogs where they fulminate about the intrusiveness of government and pledge to make a final heroic stand.
Census Bureau policy is to send a follow-up survey 30 days after the first one if the first one does not get returned, then to make phone calls to the uncooperative household, and then finally to send personal agents to try to intimidate the non-cooperator into cooperating — though of course they don’t say intimidate. That’s my interpretation.
Nevertheless, the website Wisegeek.com reports that the survey “has been said to be unanswered by 45 percent of its recipients,” which is interesting even if “has been said” is a pretty vague attribution.
I cannot find a report of anyone having been punished, as opposed to merely harassed, for refusing to cooperate.
My irate caller wanted to know what she should she do, and of course I refrained from offering advice. I did have the thought that she might answer whatever questions she doesn’t mind answering and just leave the others blank, but Wisegeek says people who do that are more likely to be harassed than those who blow off the survey altogether.
When I have been in a subversive mood myself, I have sometimes responded to surveys (though not this one) with entirely false information, in much the same spirit as Dutch workers in the 15th century supposedly shoved their wooden shoes (sabots) into early industrial machinery.
I don’t recommend that course, however. If I recommend anything it is always to obey the law and give Caesar his due.
Candidate Paul, not known for his affection for the federal government, says, “One can only imagine the countless malevolent ways our federal bureaucrats could use this information,” referring to information obtained from the survey, and even though I’m willing to bet that he can imagine more malevolent ways than I can, or maybe than anyone else in the country can, still I have to wonder why the Census Bureau needs to know about my failing memory or the occasional hitch in my knee when I climb stairs.
Isn’t it enough that I pay my taxes and allow myself to be counted every 10 years?