The Orwellian American Community Survey: Overreach
(Originally printed 4/1/2010)
The American Community Survey wasn’t around when Ronald Reagan declared that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” If it was, he’d probably agree that having a government representative knock on your door, try to threaten their way into your home, and demand that you give them very personal information is far more terrifying.
My nightmare started in January when I received the American Community
Survey (ACS) form in the mail. The ACS is an extension of the U.S. Census that all households receive. While the U.S. Census form contains 10 questions and is sent out every 10 years, the ACS form contains 48 questions and is sent to 250,000 households each month on a rolling basis.
The ACS itself is a lesson in government overreach. Article 1 of the Constitution allows for a census every 10 years so that seating in Congress is proportional to state populations. Lawmakers gave the Commerce Department the power to ask more questions, and it took the power and ran, and ran, with it — ending up asking questions unrelated to districting. (ACS answers, according to its website, are to help “manage or evaluate federal and state government programs” — not to help with congressional seating.)
What’s especially problematic about the ACS are the answers it demands from citizens. The least threatening of them are just strange — such as asking whether your home has a flush toilet and whether “there is a business (such as a store or barber shop) or a medical practice” on your property. Then there are the financial questions. The ACS asks everything from your sources of income (in dollar amounts) to how much you spend on gas, electricity, and water. The IRS just asks what you earn; the Commerce Department wants to know how you spend your money as well.
Even more invasive are the personal questions. The questionnaire asks how many people live with you and their relationship to you, along with their names, ages, gender, and race. Most creepy of all are the questions about your daily routine. The ACS wants to know where you work, what time you leave for work, how you get to work, how long it takes you to get to work, and how many people travel with you. Downright Orwellian. That was my first thought when I received the form. And initially I didn’t quite believe that the government would demand such personal information and threaten citizens with fines (up to $5,000) if they don’t hand it over. When friends, from Justice Department officials to university lecturers, heard about it from me, their first thought was that it was some kind of sophisticated mail fraud. After learning that the ACS was real, I reluctantly spent an hour answering the questions — vowing at the same time to protest to my representatives in Congress — and dropped the form in the mail toward the end of January. A few weeks after sending in the form, a representative of the ACS left a note at my apartment asking me to contact her. When I did, she said she’d like to come to my apartment to go through the questions. I replied that I’d already filled out the form, and if they’d lost it, it was their duty to find it. I also didn’t want a stranger entering my home and asking personal questions (and ones that I’d already answered), I told her. The ACS representative ignored my comments and later turned up twice unannounced at my apartment, demanding entry, and warning me of the fines I would face if I didn’t cooperate. I cited the Fourth Amendment (“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches…”), and reiterated what I told her on the phone. After that, on March 14, I sent a letter of complaint to her regional director. My saga ended on March 23 when an ACS program supervisor investigated my case and discovered my form had in fact been received on February 8, only it was sitting on the side and never processed. She thanked me for writing in to complain — she said it was my letter that prompted the search for my form — and said she would investigate the harassment I received. My experience exposes that a basic problem with the government having the kind of detailed information the ACS asks is not only from some rogue bureaucrat abusing it, but from an incompetent one losing or misplacing it. U.S. Census Bureau workers have even in the past accidentally published people’s personal information on public websites.
But the bigger problem with the ACS is the underlying government mentality it exposes. From the Commerce Department thinking it can demand any personal information it wants, to a government representative thinking she can threaten her way into a private home to get those answers — what today’s government and its workers have forgotten is that government is accountable to the people, not the reverse. It is “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” in Abraham Lincoln’s immortal words. But in today’s America, the servants are increasingly acting like the masters.
Daniel Freedman is director of strategy and policy analysis at the Soufan Group.
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