When was the last time someone broke into your house to give you something?
…SPAMMED your email inbox to give you free money (no…really give you free money)?
…brandished a knife in a dark alley and then forced you to take his watch and wallet?
If you’ve never experienced any of the above you’re in good company; nobody has. Luckily, the United States Department of Commerce, Census Bureau is here to see to it none of us miss out.
Approximately 4 weeks ago, my father-in-law (“FIL”) received an envelope in the mail. In large print on the front of the envelope, boxed and bolded, was the following admonishment
The American Community Survey
YOUR RESPONSE IS
REQUIRED BY LAW
FIL’s immediate (and appropriate) question was, “is this for real”?
Absolutely it’s for real, FIL. A quick perusal of the Census Bureau website confirmed that recipients of the Survey are expected to respond immediately and comprehensively. Or else.
But don’t worry; it’s all for your benefit. Just like everything the government does. This was confirmed via the Frequently Asked Questions brochure. Listed prominently therein was the following clarification:
How do I benefit by answering the American Community Survey?
Communities need data about the well-being of children, families, and the older population to provide services to them. By responding to the American Community Survey questionnaire, you are helping your community to establish goals, identify problems and solutions, and measure the performance of programs.
The data also are used to decide where to locate new highways, schools, hospitals, and community centers; to show a large corporation that a town has the workforce the company needs; and in many other ways.
See, FIL? The Census Bureau just needs to know a few things about you and your family so they can give you stuff.
…see to it the children are provided for.
…make sure you have the community facilities and services you’re entitled to.
…assure local employers that your area is, in fact, sized correctly for their workforce needs.
These goals are terrific, because without the census bureau probing for highly sensitive personal data from a small percentage of a given population, how would local communities ever provide basic services? How would a potential employer ever know whether a community could sustain its workforce needs? It’s not like they could just post openings on the Internet and expect candidates to respond to them for crying out loud.
Okay, so despite the rather strident warnings at the outset, the thought of a census survey per se is not that disturbing. But there were quite a few things about this particular Survey that jumped off the pages as noteworthy (read as: completely ridiculous).
For instance, the questions included in the American Community Survey are abundant, invasive, and comically inane. Some of the questions in the HOUSING section include (paraphrased):
- What kind of home do you live in?
- How big is your home?
- In what year was your home built?
- How much land does your home sit on?
- How much money did you receive last year from the sale of agricultural products from the property your home sits on?
- How many rooms are in the home?
- How many of these rooms are bedrooms?
- Does the home have hot and cold running water?
- Does the home a flush toilet?
- Does the home a bathtub or shower?
- Does the home a sink with a faucet?
- Does the home a stove or range?
- Does the home have a refrigerator?
- Does the home have telephone service from which you can both make and receive calls?
- Does anyone in the home use a desktop, laptop, netbook, or notebook computer?
- Does anyone in the home use a handheld computer, smart mobile phone, or other wireless computer?
- Does the home have access to the Internet?
- If so, what kind of Internet access does the home have? Dial-up? DSL? Cable modem? Fiber optic? Mobile broadband? Satellite? Other?
- How many automobiles are kept at home for the use of the family?
- Which fuel is used most for heating the home?
- What were the fuel costs for the home in the last month?
- What were the utility costs for the home in the past year?
- What is the monthly rent for the home?
- Does rent include meals?
- About how much do you think the home would sell for if it were for sale?
- What are the annual real estate taxes on the home?
- What is the annual payment for fire, hazard, and flood insurance on the property?
- How much is the mortgage on the property?
- Does mortgage include real estate taxes on the property?
- Do you or another person have a second mortgage on the property?
- What is the regular monthly payment on the second and all junior mortgages and all home equity loans on the property?
- What are the total annual costs for property taxes, site rent, registration fees, and license fees if this is a mobile home?
Again, those are some of the questions from the HOUSING section of the survey. At this point it should be much more obvious that, once this information is provided, the Census Bureau can better your community. Lavish you with gifts from the public treasury. Ensure your life goals and expectations are completely fulfilled.
To drive the proverbial nail home, there are also 48 questions to be answered for each person living in the home in the PERSON section. A few of them include…
- How much education does this person have?
- Does this person speak a language other than English at home?
- How well does this person speak English?
- Did this person live in this house 1 year ago?
- Where did this person live 1 year ago?
- Is this person currently covered by any health insurance? Employer provided? Self provided? Medicare? Medicaid? Tricare? VA? Indian Health Service? Other?
- Is this person deaf?
- Is this person blind?
- Does this person have difficulty with everyday activities because of a physical or mental impairment?
- What is this person’s marital status?
- In the past 12 months, did this person get married? Widowed? Divorced?
- How many times has this person been married?
- In what year did this person last get married?
- Has this person given birth to any children in the past 12 months?
- Does this person have any of his/her own grandchildren under 18 living in the home?
- Is this person primarily responsible for the well being of the grandchildren?
- If so, for how long?
- Is this person on active duty for the military?
- Has this person ever served in the military?
- Does this person have a VA service-connected disability rating?
- What is this person’s service-connected disability rating?
- Did this person work for pay last week?
- At what location did this person work last week?
- How did this person get to work last week?
- How many people rode to work in the family car, truck, or van last week?
- What time did this person usually leave home to get to work last week?
- How many minutes did it usually take this person to get from home to work last week?
- What is the nature of this person’s employer (non-profit, for profit, private, state government, federal government, self employed, etc)?
- What is the name of this person’s employer?
- What kind of business or industry is the employer in?
- Is this mainly manufacturing? Wholesale trade? Retail trade? Other?
- What kind of work does this person do?
- What were this person’s most important activities or duties?
- What are this person’s wages from the last 12 months? Self-employment income? Interest, dividends, net rental income, etc? Social Security or Railroad Retirement? Supplemental Security Income? Any public assistance or welfare payments from the state or local welfare office? Retirement, survivor, or disability pensions? Any other sources of income?
- Person’s total income during the past 12 months?
Clearly this is a substantial amount of information. One might reasonably conclude that gathering that much personal and financial data and reporting it accurately (again under threat of penalty of perjury) would take some time. One might further reasonably assume that the Census Bureau would allot adequate time to gather and report the data.
Not quite. At least, not for FIL.
In FIL’s case, the Census Bureau waited one week and then began calling.
The Census Bureau called FIL every evening for two weeks (including Mother’s Day Sunday) to inform him that his answers were being expected immediately, if not sooner.
Home invaders can be arrested and prosecuted. SPAM can be deleted and safeguards employed to protect against further unsolicited emails. Dark alleys and the muggers that inhabit them can be avoided. But what do you do when the United States federal government starts calling your home…repeatedly? What do you do when they insist you furnish them with highly detailed and personal information, post haste?
As a bystander, admittedly with no exposure to fines or prosecution, my advice to FIL was, “To heck with them. Our government is clearly trending toward a more heavy-handed approach, but they don’t have the practice to be as tyrannical as they pretend to be. They can threaten all they want, but in reality they are completely incompetent. Ignore them or answer whenever and however you want, but I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Because of my advice or despite it (I never asked which), what FIL ultimately did was to wait as long as he thought reasonable and then call the Census Bureau to clarify his situation. FIL wanted to know why he received the Survey.
…If he was being targeted.
…If he was, in fact, being targeted, why?
…If he actually needed to retrieve detailed household financial data for the past year in order to provide accurate personal data.
…What would happen if he made a simple error or omission and answered a question incorrectly.
…How long he had to gather and provide all the aforementioned data before the Census Bureau would take action against him.
And that was where the Marxist threats and rhetoric of the Census Bureau met the Three Stooges reality of government performance.
The Census Bureau specialist informed FIL in their phone conversation that answers could be best-guess estimates. She also said that answers could be given verbally over the phone in an interrogatory substitute for submitting the questionnaire. She further explained that any answers that made the respondent uncomfortable could be bypassed. Lastly, she assured FIL that he didn’t actually have to be the one to provide the answers. Anyone 15 years of age or older living in the home could provide answers for the entire household.
Let me repeat that last part.
Anyone in the home, 15 years or older, can provide estimates on sensitive, personal household data. Data that the Census Bureau will tabulate in order to make (presumably) incredibly important determinations on how public funds will be allocated.
I hope you like skate parks, ‘cause your nephew just ordered one on the public dime!
The American Community Survey comes on strong; like a gigantic sweaty drunk in a singles bar. “What’s your name, sugar? Do you come here often? How much did you pay in utilities last year?”
Fortunately, despite the smarmy strong-arm tactics and rather unpleasant smell, the American Community Survey is administered by the Census Bureau, a wholly-owned subsidiary of our feckless federal bureaucracy. Which means all you have to do is get one of the adolescents in your area to make a quick phone call on your behalf.
“Why yes, my house does have running water. Now send stimulus money for a slushie machine, bro. YOLO.”
In distributing, marketing, and enforcing compliance with the American Community Survey, the Census Bureau may arguably be employing KGB tactics. However, in practical application the Commerce Department is less like a well-oiled Soviet machine and more like Frank Drebin from Police Squad.
It hurts somewhat to say such unflattering things about our government, but it is true and sometimes the truth does hurt.
“Oh sure, maybe not as much as landing on a bicycle with the seat missing, but it hurts!”
Well done, Census Bureau; Lieutenant Drebin would be proud indeed.