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A bill filed this month in Congress to halt a number of fact-gathering U.S. Census Bureau activities–notably the thorough American Community Survey (ACS)–has drawn a local congressman among its sponsors.
It’s not the first time U.S. Rep. Walter Jones (R-3) has signed onto a bill that would, one way or another, end a legal requirement that Americans complete the ACS, which goes to 3 million households in the United States each year and asks recipients about their state of health, how much they think their property is worth and what they do at their places of employment.
“Over the years, our office has heard from dozens, if not hundreds, of constituents about the intrusive nature of a number of Census-driven surveys–especially the American Community Survey–that are outside the core mission of the Census Bureau,” Jones said Friday.
The U.S. Census Bureau conducts the ACS to keep current population, demographic, housing and health data. But H.R. 1638, filed April 18 by South Carolina Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan, would repeal the bureau’s authority to conduct essentially any questionnaire outside of the primary–and constitutionally required–headcount done every 10 years.
Jones, the Farmville Republican whose large 3rd Congressional District includes about a quarter of New Hanover County’s population, was one of 10 co-sponsors as of Sunday. He said to his knowledge he had never heard a favorable remark from his constituents about the ACS.
“The eastern North Carolinians that we have heard from believe, and I agree, that the federal government should not infringe on citizens’ privacy by requiring by law the completion of this survey,” Jones said.
Required, and why
Participation in the ACS is indeed required by law. Refusal to partake can fetch the offender a maximum penalty of $5,000, according to the Census Bureau.
Contacted Friday, a Census Bureau spokesman in Washington, D.C., said his office’s policy was not to comment on pending legislation. But it had plenty of information to offer in general about the ACS and the kind of useful data that could disappear with it.
Chiefly, the ACS corrals information that helps the federal government determine how to allocate $400 billion yearly for local-level needs, like with infrastructure and social services.
Understanding a locale’s needs and characteristics means asking recipients of the survey about, for instance, the size of their homes and how many bedrooms and bathrooms they have.
“About how much do you think this house and lot, apartment, or mobile home (and lot, if owned) would sell for if it were for sale?” the ACS asks.
The Census Bureau says such questions are not to violate privacy but are important for understanding trends and what the qualities are of individual counties, towns and neighborhoods. The prompts about housing give the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development the data it needs for its assistance programs, like those that serve elderly and low-income residents.
“What is the monthly rent [or mortgage payment] for this house, apartment, or mobile home?” the ACS also asks.
Recording such locally specific data can show how one area–a county, for instance–compares in quality and value to its neighbors, officials point out.
“The American Community Survey is such a rich source of information that it not only tells you how many people are in an area, but it gives you a really rich picture of the characteristics, what the needs are,” said Bob Coats of the N.C. Office of State Budget and Management.
The survey has a separate “population” section asking about race, sex and age. One of the questions asks specifically whether the respondent is Hispanic, Latino or of Spanish origin.
“Hispanic origin is used in numerous programs and is vital in making policy decisions,” information attached to the survey explains. An example: “Under the Voting Rights Act, data about Hispanic origin are essential to ensure enforcement of bilingual election rules.”
The ACS seeks other race-related information, too, required in federal programs that deal with equal employment opportunities and racial disparities in health. It additionally collects data on impairments the respondents might have.
“Does this person have difficulty dressing or bathing?” the ACS asks. An attachment says information of that sort factors into funding programs for people with disabilities.
In another targeted question, the ACS wants to know where the respondent works, what the company’s name is, what kind of business it is, and what the respondent’s most important duties are there.
When millions of people divulge that information, the federal government says it can keep current its picture of the American labor force and develop policies and programs regarding, for instance, employment and career training.
ACS data are for the every-man’s sake as well, says the Census Bureau. According to a bulletin sent to press release subscribers April 24, the survey provides “reliable statistics that are indispensable to anyone who has to make informed decisions about the future. These statistics are required by all levels of government to manage or evaluate a wide range of programs, but are also useful for research, education, journalism, business and advocacy.”
Said Coats of the state’s budget office, “If a company was thinking about opening a facility in a given county … they’d be able to get information on what [that area's] workforce might look like.”
Past efforts against ACS
Bills and amendments to curb the ACS and other Census Bureau questionnaires are not odd in Congress, and this isn’t the first time Jones has joined one.
In March 2011, for instance, he signed onto a bill put forth by U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, a Republican from Texas, to repeal the penalty for refusing to complete the ACS (though the bill would still have required answers for a few of the prompts, like the respondent’s name, the number of persons in the household and the date of the information).
The bill did not pass.
Jones also voted in 2012 for an amendment to prohibit tax dollars from supporting the ACS at all. It was introduced by Congressman Daniel Webster, a Republican from Florida, who during floor remarks referred to the “intrusive, unconstitutional American Community Survey,” which he said costs $2.4 billion annually to administer.
“The survey demands that they know what respondents have difficulty dressing…” Webster noted. He said it was hard to imagine the writers of the Constitution wanting the federal government to have such private information.
The Census Bureau’s decennial headcount is required by the Constitution; the ACS is not.
The latest proposal, from Congressman Duncan, is called the “Census Reform Act of 2013.”
Duncan, in his biography at jeffduncan.house.gov, said he wanted to take “a closer look at any government agency that is not included in the constitutional role of the federal government.”
To Jones, Port City Daily emailed a series of questions regarding his opposition to the ACS and the national value the Census Bureau has placed on the data culled.
His office responded with a statement that only noted the opposition Jones has heard from constituents and that he views the ACS as an invasion of privacy.
The Census Bureau says the respondents’ information is kept completely confidential, and that it makes each employee when hired sign a ’til-death oath to keep it secret. A violator can face a fine of up to $250,000 or five years in prison, or both.
Regarding the fines for recipients who refuse to participate, the Census Bureau itself is not a prosecuting agency and prefers to explain the value of its surveys rather than seek penalties, said spokesman Michael C. Cook of the bureau’s Washington, D.C., office.
For the most part, he added, Americans participate and thus can be assured of the accuracy of the statistics generated.
“Since 2005,” said Cook, “the combination of mail, telephone, and personal visits has produced annual overall survey response rates between 97 percent and 98 percent.”
No one has been fined for refusal to participate, according to the Census Bureau.