Big Brother Wants to Know All About You: The American Community Survey


“This is Big Brother at its worst.” ~ Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX)

Over the past several years, I have been barraged with emails from Americans expressing their dismay over the American Community Survey, the latest census form to hit randomly selected households on a continuous basis. Unlike the traditional census, which collects data every ten years and is now underway, the American Community Survey is taken every year at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. And at 28 pages (with an additional 16-page instruction packet), it contains some of the most detailed and intrusive questions ever put forth in a census questionnaire. These concern matters that the government simply has no business knowing, including a person’s job, income, physical and emotional health, family status, place of residence and intimate personal and private habits.

As one frustrated survey recipient, Beth, shared with me:

When we first read through the American Community Survey, we thought it was an ID theft scam. I showed it to a lawyer friend of mine. She had never heard of the survey and warned it could be a scam. She said if she’d received this, she would call her congressman and senator to find out if scams such as this were happening to warn others. So I called Washington DC. They in turn told me to call our senator’s office in my state – which I did. I was referred to the Justice Department, who then referred me to my county representative. When I called my county representative, my call was shifted to a Census Bureau employee placed in their offices to field questions about the survey. The Census Bureau representative told me the survey was not a scam. She could not tell me whether or not to fill it out, but said if we chose not to, there could be hefty fines and jail time associated with not doing so. She was no help at all and was evasive in answering my questions.

As Beth found out, the survey is not voluntary. Answering the questions is not a polite request from the Census Bureau. You are legally obligated to answer. If you refuse, the fines are staggering. For every question not answered, there is a $100 fine. And for every intentionally false response to a question, the fine is $500. Therefore, if a person representing a two-person household refused to fill out any questions or simply answered nonsensically, the total fines could range from upwards of $10,000 and $50,000 for noncompliance.

While the penalties for not answering are outrageous, the questions, as Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has said, are “both ludicrous and insulting.” For example, the survey asks how many persons live in your home, along with their names and detailed information about them such as their relationship to you, marital status, race and their physical, mental and emotional problems, etc. The survey also asks how many bedrooms and bathrooms you have in your house, along with the kind of fuel used to heat your home, the cost of electricity, what type of mortgage you have, the amount of your monthly mortgage payments, property taxes and so on. This questionnaire also requires you to detail how many days you were sick last year, how many automobiles you own, whether you have trouble getting up the stairs and, amazingly, what time you leave for work every morning and how long it takes you to get there. When faced with the prospect that government agents could covertly enter your home and rifle through your personal belongings, do you really want the government knowing exactly when you’re away from home?

As if the survey’s asinine questions and highly detailed inquiries into your financial affairs weren’t bad enough, you’re also expected to violate the privacy of others by supplying the names and addresses of your friends, relatives and employer. And the questionnaire stipulates that you provide such information on the people in your home as their educational levels, how many years of schooling they completed, what languages they speak and when they last worked at a job, among other things.

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Americans being ordered by the government to inform and spy on your family and friends? It’s not too far off from the scenario George Orwell envisioned in his futuristic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. “The family,” writes Orwell, “had become in effect an extension of the Thought Police. It was a device by means of which everyone could be surrounded night and day by informers who knew him intimately.”

Granted, some of the questions in the American Community Survey may appear fairly routine. However, the danger rests in not knowing exactly how the government plans to use this vast amount of highly personal information. For instance, if the financial information you provide on the survey does not jive with your tax returns, whether such a discrepancy was intentional or not, could you be flagged for an IRS audit? Given the increasing amount of collusion taking place between government agencies in recent years, I wouldn’t rule it out.

Another concern with this intrusive questionnaire is that it signifies yet another inroad into the establishment of a permanent surveillance state. Everywhere we look these days, we are either being watched, taxed or some bureaucrat is placing another bit of information in our government files. Now with the American Community Survey, the federal bureaucracy is thrusting its expansive tentacles toward us in an attempt to invade every aspect of our lives.

This survey also hints at a dangerous wedding of governmental and corporate interests – a merger that inevitably results in personal data collected on hundreds of millions of Americans being shared with private corporations. Needless to say, with the Obama administration poised to hire an additional one million census workers, data collecting on American citizens will be intensified over the next several years.

Clearly, this is not what the Founders intended. As Article I of the U. S. Constitution makes plain, the census is to be taken every ten years for the sole purpose of congressional redistricting. The Founders envisioned a simple head count of the number of people living in a given area so that numerically equal congressional districts could be maintained. There is no way that the Founders would have authorized the federal government to continuously demand, under penalty of law, such detailed information from the American people.

However, the Founders did not anticipate the massive and meddlesome federal bureaucracy we have today or the daily onslaught of media images and governmental scare tactics designed to keep the modern American distracted and submissive. Sadly, most Americans do not seem to care that their freedoms are being whittled away or they see no point in resistance. Either way, the reaction is the same: they submit to virtually every government demand, including the highly intrusive and patently unconstitutional American Community Survey.

Thankfully, there are still some Americans out there who value freedom and recognize that it is time to stand up and fight back using whatever peaceful, nonviolent means are available to them. As Beth concludes in her email to me:

As an American loyal to my country, we have no choice but to stand against this unethical intrusion into our lives. I have called and written to many people. No response. No one seems to be listening. No one seems to care. I intend to vote for those who do care.

March 5, 2010