IT COMES WITH A PRICE: U.S. CENSUS INTRUDES ON PRIVACY
Myriad Government Programs Require Exhaustive Data
By Carol W. LaGrasse
February 18, 2005
The twenty-four pages of questions in the American Community Survey issued by the United States Census Bureau are daunting. Numerous citizens are worried about revealing private details of their lives in response to the seventy-three, often intrusive, questions packed on the seventeen-inch wide pages. Most of the questions are repeated for each person in the household and some have as many as eight sub-questions. Privacy advocates have also been passionately weighing in with their criticism.
Rather than being mailed to one of each ten households at the time of the regular ten-year enumeration, the elaborate survey forms are being sent in a steady stream to the same proportion of households, distributed evenly over the ten-year period. This is meant to save tax dollars, because census workers can be kept working steadily, rather than being hired for a blitz of work every ten years. In addition, because the data is being processed continuously, rather than once every ten years, the survey provides statistically adjusted information on a continuing, current basis. This solves the problem inherent in past long-form surveys of dealing with outdated information toward the end of the ten-year period.
Much of the required information is similar to the intrusive revelations that were asked for on the long-form census that was mailed to ten percent of households for approximately fifty years.
Receiving the long survey can be intimidating, not only because of its great length and intrusive detail, but also because it is mandatory to comply with the requests for information. The instructions attached to the form point out that "response to this survey is required by law" and that the U.S. Code "imposes a penalty for not responding." However, no one has been prosecuted for non-compliance, according to Jim Moore, a legislative aide at the U.S. House of Representatives Government Reform Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Census Bureau.
The randomly mailed questionnaires require detailed information about individuals and households ranging from names, dates of birth, relationships, and marital status to specifics about every source of income, work location, hours, travel methods, nature and details of employment, and name of employer. Housing information required on the form starts with building categories from mobile home to boat, RV or van; building age; duration of residence; plot size; rooms; plumbing facilities; kitchen facilities; telephone service; and vehicles; and moves on to require much additional information, such as fuel and its cost, electric cost, rent, water and sewer payments, real estate taxes, mortgages, property valuation, and more.
If it landed in regulatory hands, some of the census information, such as housing details, could cause enforcement problems for property owners. Financial information is especially sensitive. Few citizens would like to see the details of their household finances that are required in the questionnaire revealed to wrongful parties or to the public.
Most people would be surprised to learn that, by and large,
the Census Bureau does not determine what type of information
that is sought with its long form. Instead, it is the Congress,
rather than the Bureau, that dictates each area of inquiry, in
order to find data needed for its programs.
"Everything is expressly required by statute," remarked Mr. Moore, the legislative aide at the Government Reform Committee.
Census survey data is used to determine funding for programs such as housing and agriculture; to establish trends requiring additional services such as transportation; to determine issues affecting low-income people and minorities, such as housing and commuting problems; and for many other purposes, such as veterans services. The long form's prodigious search for information is a service to meet the exhaustive statistical needs of big government. (In addition, of course, the survey provides essential data that is of value to the private sector.)
For instance, the Department of Commerce requires information on commuter flows and the Department of Health and Human Services demands information on where people work and where they live, according to Mr. Moore. In addition, the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division requires information on the labor pool for civil rights considerations, he explained.
These particular statutory requirements for information gives rise to questions like number 24 in one census section to be answered by each person separately, "At what location did this person work last week?" The answer requires workplace address, name of city, town or post office, whether the location is inside the limits of that city or town, the name of county, name of U.S. state or foreign country, and zip code. The other many questions to fulfill this survey section include, for instance, number 27, "What time did this person usually leave home to go to work last week?" This requires the exact time to the minute. Question 28 asks, "How many minutes did it usually take this person to get from home to work last week?" The need for this information seems reasonable to analyze commuting patterns. However, it is unclear why the Census Bureau's statistical analysis should demand, in addition to the workplace address, the exact name of the company for whom the person worked the previous week, as requested in question number 36.
Some of the personal questions are notably intrusive. For instance, number 17 asks, "Because of physical, mental, or emotional condition lasting 6 months or more, does this person have any difficulty in Going outside the home to shop or visit a doctor's office? Working at a job or business?"
Question 19 pries into the involvement of grandparents in raising
"a. Does this person have any of his/her own grandchildren under the age of 18 living in this house or apartment?
"b. Is this grandparent currently responsible for most of the basic needs of any grandchild(ren) under the age of 18 who live(s) in this house or apartment?"
It's inconceivable that a federal power can be construed from the U.S. Constitution that requires a census survey of such personal information about citizens.
At a February town meeting held by U.S. Rep. John R. "Randy" Kuhl in the town hall at Hinsdale in western New York, Tom Miller of the town of Allegany said that he recently received the American Community Survey, according to the local newspaper, the Times Herald. He reportedly said that the census asked questions "I don't see a reason for asking" and that "were totally unacceptable." The newspaper reported that he said of personal questions, "This is way, way, way out of line," and that he also objected to the fines that could be imposed for failing to answer the questions or giving false responses. The fines are $100.00, additive, for each infraction. Rep. Kuhl said that he had just heard of the survey, but would look into it, according to the newspaper.
Guaranteeing the privacy of census returns has been paramount to the Congress and the Census Bureau. The responses on the relatively short, ten-year enumeration-the basic census-are kept confidential for a full 75 years. The Census Bureau just released the 1930 census to the public. The responses on the long form are considered absolutely private.
Mr. Moore pointed out that the Census Bureau has tight security in place to protect the privacy of the information on the census forms.
"We want people to be at ease," he said. "Even FBI files aren't as protected as the census. It is a criminal felony to violate the confidence of the census."
Jeff Taylor, the Director of Communications for the Census Bureau, explained that there is a process in place to keep anonymous all information gleaned from the long census forms. He said that the census's security, updated in the 1950's, represents the "gold standard" of confidentiality. Every form is kept under lock and key, he said.
"The Census Bureau keeps the forms for a year or less, when they are destroyed. They are burned so they'll never be retrieved," Mr. Taylor elaborated. "Everyone who touches the form, from the processor to the person who throws it in the fire, swears that they will not divulge anything."
He pointed out that the penalties established by Congress for violating the census confidentiality include a "five-year federal prison term and/or one-quarter million dollar fine for any infraction."
Assurances of confidentiality have not quelled the fears of citizens or civil libertarians, however. The Rutherford Institute, a nation-wide civil rights organization based in Charlottesville, Virginia, has expressed concern about the survey, which is becoming known by its abbreviation ACS.
"We have received inquiries from around the country and there appears to be a substantial opposition to the kind of intrusion into privacy the ACS attempts," e-mailed the Institute's Staff Attorney Douglas McKusick recently in response to a concerned citizen's inquiry. "We believe the ACS may be subject to legal challenge as not authorized by statute and as an unwarranted invasion of privacy."
If the federal government continues to grow, the privacy concerns of citizens who receive the long form, or American Community Survey, may grow in proportion to the additional data that the government would be likely to require to meet its needs for planning and funding. The obvious answer is to decrease the size of government, but Americans and their representatives in the Congress seem to be enamored with big government services and regulations. The Census Bureau will likely continue to experience suspicion, in the tradition dating back to the days of King David. Excruciating protections of confidentiality may be painstakingly imposed, but as long as the many intrusive questions remain in the survey, citizens can never be assured of their privacy.
Carol W. LaGrasse is the president of the Property Rights
Foundation of America, a non-profit, grassroots organization dedicated
to the protection of private property rights, with its web site