The American Community Survey (ACS) is a 21-page questionnaire generated by the US Department of Commerce under the auspices of the US Census Bureau. Funded by tax dollars, the lengthy questionnaire is mailed to 2% of the US population annually. The survey has been criticized by many recipients due to its highly invasive questions, mandatory language regarding compliance threatening steep fines, and the dogged follow-up tactics often used by Census Bureau representatives to obtain completed forms.
The Census Bureau intends the ACS to replace the “long form” questionnaire of the 10-year Census. Information provided is entered into a central data base. This data bank holds extremely sensitive details about countless residents in every area of the United States.
ACS forms are addressed to the “resident” of specific addresses randomly chosen. It is up to the primary resident to fill out the form, supply his or her full name, and the full names of each household member. Other information that must be supplied for each person includes gender, marital status, age, birthdate, and the relationship of one resident to another. Questions also delve into the specific race of each individual, language spoken, education level, citizenship and ancestry. The physical, emotional and mental state of each resident is also to be supplied, including certain medical conditions.
The ACS also requires employment addresses, the time each resident leaves for work, and when he or she arrives home. If the resident doesn’t work, the survey asks if the person could have worked if offered a job, and other related questions. Self-employment, all income sources, and the total income earned over the previous year for each resident is also required.
The form also asks how many children each resident has given birth to, if any, or if any residents are currently pregnant. Military service and retirement questions are also covered in the ACS.
A series of inquiries are dedicated to the residence itself, including when it was built, how much land it occupies, how many rooms it has, number of bathrooms, type of plumbing, and market worth. The survey also asks the cost of monthly utility bills, mortgage or rent, and the dates each resident moved in.
The Census Bureau maintains that the answers to all ACS questions are held in the strictest confidence, and that the information will help city planning efforts. In terms of commerce, business owners can use the ACS database to see whether their services or products would benefit a particular geographic area. For example, a large store might decide to put an outlet in a particular neighborhood based on information provided by the database.
The Census Bureau emphasizes that all questions must be answered. The ACS envelope arrives with a warning that a response is required by law. The form threatens a $100 US Dollar (USD) fine for every question that goes unanswered, and a $500 USD fine for every question answered untruthfully.
While big business benefits from having as much information about citizens as possible, many citizens are unwilling to give away their right to privacy. Hence, many are refusing to return the ACS. This automatically results in an additional form being sent, followed by a series of phone calls. In 21% of the cases, an unannounced, personal visit from a Census Bureau representative follows in a final attempt to get the survey completed. Often, more than one visit takes place.
In the end, however, the Census Bureau has no authority to enforce the laws that require the ACS be answered. The Census Bureau can press formal charges for non-compliance, but this is somewhat impractical given the number of forms that are not returned, or that are returned incomplete. A lawsuit would likely draw media attention and a public outcry that would very probably bring an end to the survey or end mandatory compliance. As of early 2007, no legal action has been taken against anyone for refusing to answer the ACS.