September 27, 2012
ISSUE ANALYSIS

The American Community Survey

Introduction

Most people are familiar with the U.S. Census conducted every 10 years. This has been customary in America since the first census was authorized by Congress in 1790. However, numerous privacy advocates are concerned about a more recent survey, the American Community Survey (ACS).

In 1992, the House Commerce Oversight Subcommittee asked the U.S. Census Bureau to create an annual snapshot of demographic information so Congress can react to current trends instead of 10-year-old data. The Census Bureau established the ACS as a pilot program in response to this request. It has since become a regular part of the Census.

Although the ACS is raising concerns about invasive questions and family privacy, federal law requires individuals to fill out and submit “the census form.” HSLDA created this analysis to help homeschooling families discern their rights and responsibilities relating to census forms, particularly the ACS.

What is the American Community Survey?

The U.S. Census Bureau conducts this survey, designed to provide accurate and up-to-date profiles of America’s communities, every year. Starting as a pilot program in 1992, it was fully implemented in 2003. The first results of the ACS were released in 2006, and the use of the survey was included as an amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as part of H.R. 9, The Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush on July 27, 2006.

In addition to counting the population, the ACS obtains demographic, housing, social, and economic information from a 1-in-6 sample of households, thus facilitating administration of federal programs and distribution of billions of federal dollars.

Each month, the Census Bureau will randomly select a sample of addresses from its most current Master Address File (MAF) for the ACS. The sample will represent the entire United States. No address should receive the ACS questionnaire more than once in a five-year period. Data is collected by mail and Census Bureau staff will conduct follow-up visits to the address on file for people who do not respond.

Find out more about the ACS online >>

Is the American Community Survey mandatory?

Federal law is clear that a person who refuses to give lawfully requested information in response to a census or survey may face a fine. Title 13 of the United States Code says:

“Whoever, being over eighteen years of age, refuses, or willfully neglects, when requested by the Secretary, or by any other authorized officer or employee of the Department of Commerce or bureau or agency thereof acting under the instructions of the Secretary or authorized officer, to answer, to the best of his knowledge, any of the questions on any schedule submitted to him in connection with the census or survey … applying to himself or to the family to which he belongs or is related, or to the farm or farms of which he or his family is the occupant, shall be fined not more than $5,000.”

How does this apply to the ACS which is not specifically authorized by Congress in Title 13? The Census Bureau asserts that it has authority to conduct this survey under Title 13 and argue that the ACS is “a part of the census,” and thus covered by the general census language in the law.

Article I, Section 2(3) of the U.S. Constitution authorizes Congress to conduct a census: “The actual enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years, in such a manner as they shall by law direct.”

The last phrase, “in such a manner as they shall by law direct,” gives Congress broad authority to determine the scope and process for collecting the census, including the power to expand the census and Title 13 to the ACS.

How the American Community Survey is mailed to your address:

The Census Bureau maintains a national Master Address File (MAF), constructed by a computer match of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) Delivery Sequence File (DSF), the Census Address Control File (ACF), and the Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing (TIGER) files. Thereafter, periodic updates from the USPS DSF, census surveys, and field-listing activities keep the MAF current.

Since the U.S. Census Bureau has this MAF in place, this is how they conduct ACS:

  • Uses the Master Address File (MAF), a complete listing of all residential in the country, for sample selection.
  • Mails or delivers American Community Survey questionnaires each month to sample addresses.
  • Uses commercial vendor lists to obtain telephone numbers for addresses that did not mail back their American Community Survey questionnaires and conducts telephone interviews.
  • Selects a one-in-three sample of the addresses still not interviewed and conducts personal interviews.
  • Provides customized samples for subpopulations of interest, by providing the ability to increase sample sizes in the American Community Survey, and by providing a vehicle for collecting data on supplemental topics for population groups or specific geographic areas. Can the American Community Survey information on your family be provided to any other agency?

All of the information you give in response to the ACS is fully protected by law and cannot be shared by the Census Bureau. Title 13 of the United States Code says:

“Neither the Secretary, nor any other officer or employee of the Department of Commerce or bureau or agency thereof, or local government census liaison, may, except as provided in section 8 or 16 or chapter 10 of this title;
1. Use the information furnished under the provisions of this title for any purpose other than the statistical purposes for which it was supplied; or
2. Make any publication whereby the data furnished by any particular establishment or individual under this title can be identified; or
3. Permit anyone other than the sworn officers and employees of the Department or bureau or agency thereof to examine the individual report.”

In addition, the Census Bureau takes great pains to stress the privacy of the ACS. According to the Census Bureau:

“The numbers we publish are combined with thousands of answers from people in your neighborhood and across the country. No one, except sworn Census Bureau employees, can see your questionnaire or link your name with your responses. In fact, the law provides severe penalties for any census employee that makes your answers known. By law (Title 13 USC) the Census Bureau cannot share the individual answers it receives with others, including welfare agencies, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Internal Revenue Service, courts or police. The military personnel who help with the census on-base are sworn to protect the confidentiality of your answers. Anyone who breaks this law can receive up to 5 years in prison and $5,000 in fines. Millions of questionnaires were processed during the 1990s without any breach of trust.”

Is there a religious exemption to the American Community Survey in the U. S. Code?

The most significant religious exemption language in Title 13 of the United States Code guarantees everyone protection from invasive questions regarding religious beliefs:

“Notwithstanding any other provision of this title, no person shall be compelled to disclose information relative to his religious beliefs or to membership in a religious body.”

This simply means that nobody is required to answer questions regarding his religious beliefs or church membership. The Census Bureau has informed us that they will not include any religious questions of this nature on either census form.

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For further information on this issue analysis please contact federalrelations@hslda.org or call us at 540-338-5600.