American Communitiy Survey

American Community Survey: Is it useful? Is it safe?

I filled out the U.S. Department of Commerce’s American Community Survey today, and I’m wondering: Does this thing yield anything useful, and do I trust it?

The survey arrived in my mailbox two weeks ago. Having not returned it immediately, I received a second notice—a message from the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau. “This survey is so important that a Census Bureau representative may attempt to contact you by telephone or personal visit if we do not receive your response,” said the letter. I definitely didn’t want that, so I sat down and began filling in the blanks.

What’s the American Community Survey [ACS]? It’s not the 2020 Census. The Census Bureaus conducts the ACS every year. In censuses before 2010, most households received a short-form questionnaire, while one household in every six received a long form that contained additional questions and provided more detailed socio-economic information about the population. In 2010, everyone got the short-form, and the long form was replaced with the ACS. ACS forms go out every year, rather than once every 10 years. They are sent to a small percentage of the population on a rotating basis throughout the decade. [No household is supposed to receive the ACS more often than once very five years. Good to know.]

As to how I was chosen to participate in the Community Survey, and why I have to fill it out, the Department of Commerce informs me that…

The Census Bureau chose your address, not you personally, as part of a randomly selected sample. You are required by U.S. law to respond to the survey. The U.S. Census Bureau is required by law to keep your information confidential. The Census Bureau is not permitted to publicly release you responses in a way that could identify you. Per the Federal Cybersecurity Enhancement Act of 2015, your data are protected from cybersecurity risks through screening of the systems that transmit your data.

Also, according to the US Census Bureau, “Every Census Bureau employee takes a lifetime oath to protect your personal identification. Disclosing ANY information that could identify you or your family means 5 years in prison, or  $250,000 in fines, or both.”

Nevertheless, I remain skeptical. Given recent revelations about Facebook, Russian trolls, and the Trump campaign’s links to the downright-dirty Cambridge Analytica group, plus the Trump administration’s pervasive corruption and growing track record of self-dealing, I am rapidly losing trust in our current government’s commitment to privacy and data security. I suspect that I am not alone in that skepticism, and that’s one of my concerns about the accuracy and usefulness of information being collected in the Community Survey.

It took me about 30 minutes to fill out the paper form. If there were more people in my household, it would have taken longer, because you have to answer the same questions for everybody who lives in your house.

The ACS includes questions that go beyond the decennial [big word for every ten years] Census: It asks who’s in school, who’s finished school and at what level, who’s working [where, how often, and the nature of the job], what kind of transportation you use, whether anyone in your household is deaf, blind, receiving benefits for a disability, unable to climb a flight of stairs, or having difficulty focusing on tasks. And more.

I don’t have a problem with these questions. I believe the Census Department’s brochure when it says :

“Communities need data about the well-being of children, families and the older population to provide services to them. The ACS …[helps to] establish goals, identify problems and solutions, and measure the performance of programs. The data are also used to decide where to locate new highways, schools, hospitals and community centers.”

That actually sounds to me like a well-intentioned, good-government program aimed at the common good.

Of course, I also believe that this information would probably be better used by a government led by people who actually care about the well-being of people, rather than the financial health of their corporate cronies.

Of course, I also believe that this information would probably be better used by a government led by people who actually care about the well-being of people, rather than the financial health of their corporate cronies.

Nevertheless, I persisted, and  I dutifully plodded through.

And yes, the ACS does ask about your citizenship status. But, as an aside, that’s not new. That question was included in the every-ten-year census from 1890 through 1950. According to

Beginning in 1970 and continuing through 2000, The Census Bureau used two different questionnaires to gather information—a short form sent to more than 80 percent of American households, which did not inquire about citizenship, and a long form distributed to fewer than 20 percent of American households, which did [include the citizenship question.]

The long form was discontinued after 2000, so in 2010, every household received the short form—meaning, in effect, that no one was asked for citizenship data in the big 2010 Census. But households who received the ACS were …Technically, the Census Bureau never actually stopped asking the citizenship question, although since the 2000 census, they have only asked it of around 3.5 million households [2.6 percent of the population] per year.

[Whether it is being added back in to the overall census for 2020 for political reasons is another issue.]

But I digress.

Here are some problems I have with the ACS:

Working your way through it is a bit like stumbling through a maze. Depending on how you answer, say, Question 12a, you are instructed either to skip to Question 15a, or answer Question 12b. [Not real question numbers, in case you’re checking me for accuracy.] There’s a lot of that. You have to repeat the procedure for every member of the household, and I can imagine people getting frustrated and bailing out. [I can just hear the complaints of “ridiculous government bureaucracy” now.]

Then, when you get to the part about household income and expenses, you’re really in the weeds. You’re sitting on the couch with your spouse, filling out the form, and you come to the questions about how much you earned in the past 12 months [not the same period as you’re filing for with the IRS, by the way], how much of that was interest and/or dividends, how much was Social Security, or pension, how much you pay per month for natural gas, electricity, sewer, water, personal property taxes and real estate taxes, and homeowners’ or rental insurance.

I’m a homeowner. I pay bills. But I don’t have those numbers at my fingertips. And, let’s face it, after page after page of questions, I’m just too lazy to go to my files to figure out those numbers.  So I estimate. Or guess. Or just pull a number out of the air, just to fill in the blank. And I’m certain that I’m not alone in short-cutting the process. So, how good is the information going to be?

Also, the ACS asked me to indicate my ethnic background or national origin. They offer suggestions, such as Japanese, Polish, etc. But, really, what am I supposed to say? Where my parents and grandparents came from? There’s just one blank, but my family was from several different countries. I didn’t know what to say. That’s why I left it blank. Maybe the government doesn’t really need to know that, anyway.

And I think that that others may not answer that question, as well, because they fear that ethnic information could be used for nefarious purposes—especially by an administration that is so openly anti-immigrant. [Personally, I’m not yet at the stage of paranoia that I worry that ethnic information will be used to send us to internment camps –although there’s some evidence that pre-World-War-II census information was used precisely for that purpose].

In the end, I did my duty as a citizen and mailed it in—in the conveniently supplied pre-paid envelope. But I have my doubts about the usefulness and privacy of the information I’ve supplied. In today’s prevailing political atmosphere, I’m guessing that many others share my suspicions, and that there will be a lot of spaces left blank and surveys tossed in the trash. That’s a sad development for our country.