Is This Really From the US Census?


A reader shared a concern regarding a mailing, apparently from the US Census American Community Survey, demanding answers to a host of "very personal" questions regarding the recipient and the recipient's family, including sexual orientation. Completing the survey, the text explained, was mandatory.

It did seem a little suspicious, so we contacted the media relations team at the Census, and got the following reply:

The American Community Survey (ACS) is the largest survey conducted annually by the Census Bureau and is part of the decennial census (read more at ACS and the Decennial Census).

Information about the questionnaire can be found at ACS Forms and Instructions, along with Top Questions About the Survey and Why We Ask Each Question. We also have an American Community Survey Information Guide that provides more information.

In addition, information for respondents can be found on Respond to the ACS, along with Get Help Responding to the ACS and How to Respond FAQs.

Respondents are legally obligated to answer all the questions as accurately as they can.

The relevant laws are Title 18 U.S.C Section 3571 and Section 3559, which amends Title 13 U.S.C. Section 221.

The data we receive is important - it helps the community, the state, and the federal government make decisions about where schools, highways, hospitals, and other important services are needed. The data collected through the American Community Survey helps federal agencies determine how to distribute more than $675 billion of federal spending each year (see Uses of Census Bureau Data in Federal Funds Distribution).

Okay, a comprehensive answer. But, we asked, what about that legal obligation? What happens to scofflaws or people who lose the survey or forget to fill it out?  Do they pay a fine or do jail time?

Probably neither. Kristina Barrett, Public Affairs Specialist explained, "Since the ACS was initiated in 2005, no one has been charged or prosecuted for not completing the form. We prefer to encourage participation in the survey by appealing to respondents' sense of civic duty rather than fear of punishment."

And, she added, "All data the Census Bureau collects are governed by our Data Protection and Privacy Policy."

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