April 22, 2014

Census may change some questions after pushback from public

The U.S. Census Bureau is considering whether to drop some questions that it has used for decades from its largest household survey of Americans. First under review are four of the touchiest topics: Plumbing, commuting, income and disability.

Census questions in the American Community Survey on income that may be changedThe questions being rethought number more than a dozen that fall under those four topics, including: Does your house have a flush toilet? What time did you usually leave home to go to work last week? What was your total income during the past 12 months? Do you have trouble concentrating, remembering or making decisions because of a physical, mental and emotional condition?

Three million households a year are asked these questions—and dozens of others—on the bureau’s American Community Survey. The survey’s annually updated data help guide the distribution of more than $416 billion in federal funds. Its data provide demographic, social, economic and housing estimates that are widely used by state and local officials, businesses, researchers and advocacy organizations. It is the only source of local and neighborhood-level data on these topics.

But some Americans who receive the survey are so angry about these questions and others that they complain to members of Congress.They say that they will refuse to answer, even though response is mandatory. They believe some questions are too nosy, or that the bureau should not collect more than basic data, or both. Some call their local TV station to ask whether the survey is a scam.

Bureau officials counter that federal law protects the privacy of individual responses, and have posted a guide to why specific questions are asked. The agency and its supporters in Congress note that every question on the survey is required by a federal law, regulation or program and the courts have upheld the government’s right to ask these questions.

The Census Bureau’s audit of the American Community Survey, called “content review,” begins with the four topic areas and eventually will cover all questions on the survey. It is a different exercise from the agency’s review and rewording of health-insurance questions on the Current Population Survey, which drew controversy last week.

Speaking this month at a webinar for data users, Census Bureau official Gary Chappell said the agency receives “a lot of feedback”—up to a hundred letters a year—on some topics. The American Community Survey’s predecessor, the decennial census long form, also was the object of protests, which were concentrated in the months when the census was being taken. Bureau officials say the protests make it harder for the bureau to collect information, and may weaken data quality if respondents leave items blank.

Here is a look at four of the questions under review, with an explanation of how the data are used. The most frequent complaints are that the questions are unwarranted intrusions on personal privacy, that they are overly burdensome or that the government already collects the information elsewhere, such as through the Internal Revenue Service.

  1. Does this house, apartment or mobile home have a flush toilet?

The Census Bureau's American Community Survey question asking about indoor plumbingHow it’s used: Plumbing data are used by federal agencies to allocate federal housing subsidies, identify poor-quality housing and identify candidates for home repair or other assistance. The data also help public health officials identify areas with potential ground water contamination or waterborne diseases. The plumbing questions were first asked on the 1940 Census. Chappell acknowledged that the plumbing questions may have been more useful in earlier eras, when more homes lacked basic sanitation facilities. However, these estimates may still be important in some rural areas and on American Indian lands.

  1. What time did [each person in the household] usually leave home to go to work last week?

Commuting question on Census Bureau's American Community surveyHow it’s used: Commuting data in general are used to plan road and public-transit improvements, and to design energy-conservation programs. Knowing when people leave for work can be used to plan programs to reduce traffic problems during peak hours. The aggregated numbers are widely used not only by the federal government, but also by local and regional planning agencies. Data about commuting (“journey to work,” in census parlance) has been collected for more than five decades.

  1. What was [each person in the household’s] total income during the past 12 months?

Census Bureau American Community Survey question on wagesHow it’s used: Income data are used by federal programs to allocate funds for health care, food or other assistance to low-income areas or populations, and to target communities for economic improvement programs. The survey’s income estimates are widely used by governments, researchers and others. Privacy restrictions prevent the bureau from matching IRS data with census data. (The Canadian census first offered respondents the option in 2006 to grant permission to use their tax records as the source of their income data; 82% said yes.)

  1. Because of a physical, mental or emotional condition, does [each] person have serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions?

Census Bureau American Community Survey question on whether an individual is impairedHow it’s used: The question is among six asking about specific types of disabilities, based on standards from the Institute of Medicine. The answers are used by various federal programs to assess the need for services for the disabled, such as transportation, employment and health care. The current questions have been asked on the American Community Survey since 2008, though in the modern era other questions on disability have been asked since 1970.

The bureau’s rethinking of its questions is part of an extensive examination of the survey’s methods and management that began in 2010, five years after it began publishing national estimates. Last year, the bureau announced that it had appointed a new “respondent advocate,” whose job is to “help make the Census Bureau more aware and more sensitive to the concerns of our household respondents.” The agency also is researching ways to reduce aggressive attempts to reach respondents who do not answer the survey, which have been another source of complaints.

The “content review” project is coordinated with the Office of Management and Budget, which must approve questions asked on federal surveys. Census officials plan to survey federal agencies, survey respondents and data users about whether the usefulness and quality of the data obtained from the questions outweighs the difficulty of collecting good information.

Federal officials plan to announce decisions late this year on whether to keep, drop or suggest modifications in the four topic areas. Any changes to the American Community Survey would be implemented by 2016.

Note: This post originally stated that Census data help guide the distribution of $416 million in federal funds. It is $416 billion.

Topics: U.S. Census

  1. Photo of D’Vera Cohn

    is a Senior Writer at the Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project.

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39 Comments

  1. R Gallan1 week ago

    I too received a ACS and find it so utterly intrusive. It is totally amazing to me that our legislators find no problem with “forced” compliance to these questions. What bothers me most however, is that so many people totally miss the point. And that is, this is NOT about the importance or relevance of the data collected, but rather about the LOSS of your freedom and the right to privacy. Please understand that when a government demands your response to private matters you LOSE. Resist this Nazi tactic at all cost!

    Reply
  2. Sheri1 month ago

    I do not believe a WORD of what the Census Bureau is telling me about the confidentiality of my responses. Why would I believe them? Is ANYTHING our government says today trustworthy? Why would I believe that the NSA doesn’t reach right into this database? WHY? Reassurances from low-level Census workers hardly convince me. I am being harassed almost daily now by them and have ignored them after writing them a letter informing them that I would NOT comply. I will NOT answer their questions as long as this survey is not conducted anonymously. After numerous phone calls which I did not answer, they sent a worker to my house a few days ago who confronted me while I was gardening in my back yard. He asked, computer in hand, if I would reply anonymously. I laughed at him and said how could it be ANONYMOUS when he knew my name and was standing there with his computer in hand …was I supposed to reveal to HIM what I would not put on paper? Why should HE know what my responses might be? NO…I will NOT comply when this is done this way. They could send the questionnaires with a removable label and they could be returned showing ONLY zipcode. That is enough to identify the region. They could also leave the survey in Post Offices around the country to be completed voluntarily and anonymously. If they want my name and address, it IS for some nefarious reason and I will not hand them all this information on a silver platter. UPS has sent me an email notifying me that today I will receive an overnight package from the CENSUS BUREAU! Can you imagine wasting taxpayers money on UPS OVERNIGHT DELIVERY? Someone has to stand up to this nonsense. We give away our liberties and freedoms too willingly and too trustingly. I am too old and have seen too much in my life to trust anyone in government. I am NOT an anarchist YET…never have been and always thought government has a good role to play in our lives, but since we have learned of the sinister actions of the NSA I am totally turned around in my thinking. Let them fine me if they want…it’s better than responding under these circumstances. I’ll gladly answer questions with real value anonymously. Their thinly veiled excuse that they need my name and phone number to contact me if there are questions they have about my answers is totally laughable. They already had that information when they sent out the survey. I called them when I started filling it out and realized the outrageousness of the questions, to tell them I would NOT respond. They had the information on my identity embedded in the code number at the top of the survey. They know and USE more than they tell us. Be sure it is not some benign little survey. They are compiling a data base of the entire American population that can be HACKED, or commandeered by the NSA. Why would I willingly participate in that????? Cyber security is a great concern to the CIA and they know that our government databases are not truly secure from attack by hackers or worse, by terrorists. So even under BENIGN conditions the data is NOT safe and I will NEVER believe that everything is aggregated and that NO information from this survey is kept by name, or SS #, or address or by any other identifying information. If anyone believes this, I would be glad to sell them the Brooklyn Bridge! No matter how they harass me, I will NEVER answer this survey, and if they try to arrest me I will go to court and hopefully find someone skilled enough to represent me who can get this law either amended or repealed. An unjust law is an unjust law. It’s not something we have to live with forever.

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  3. Xena Amphipolis4 months ago

    This survey is not Constitutional. The reason that no one has ever been fined or jailed for noncompliance is that the Census department knows that they would lose that lawsuit. Everyone needs to start practicing civil disobedience and refuse to comply truthful answers. Make up wild answers.

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  4. Rob5 months ago

    The so called survey is intrusive and insulting. What time do you leave for work? (hour and minute) Who has stayed at your home? How much money do you make? Have you made any interest income? Do you have a mortgage? How much is the mortgage? Does anyone in the home have any disabilities? How much are your utilities?

    The census was meant to be a head count to figure out how many members to send to the house of representatives.That`s it.This American Community Survey should angry everyone.

    Reply
    1. Puddleglum1 month ago

      It is not as though many question within the survey are so terribly objectionable in and of themselves. If it were presented for voluntary response, much of the repulsiveness might be alleviated. However, there are other questions that are objectionable and have been published on this site, heck, even before the U.S. Supreme Court. My observation is this: those who are for government handouts are supporters of this census intrusion. The intrusion for them is worth a possible payoff. And the $s mean more to them. But even entitlement personalities find this intrusive and I think it is because even unconsciously, Americans know that federal rule is wrong. Federal programs are not American and was never intended by our forefathers in fact prohibited. We know it doesn’t work and we know the questions mean that the feds are trying to impact our lives. Out of bounds!

      Reply
  5. Alish6 months ago

    100 letters of complaint? Over 3.5 million respondents? I call that success. Toughen up, Census, toughen up.

    Reply
  6. Barbara6 months ago

    Only 100 negative comments per year per question. You are going to change because of that? This is important stuff and a few hundred people that have no idea what it is about is going to make you change. Give me a break.

    Reply
  7. Bob Moore Jr.6 months ago

    I both hope and assume that the Census now uses, at least some, of the meta data that say, the TSA and the NSA have at their disposal. Traffic questions can easily and statistically soundly come from various recipients of Federal dollars like State highways and law enforcement. As for plumbing , I suppose we can do long division on; pots sold and homes built, tear-downs and the like. Water districts can also supply this info. The Census has a thankless and meaningful task, and they do many things well…all the way down to the Census-block Group. Many of you probably do not talk to your neighbors…imagine trying to talk to all of them…for a living!

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  8. GrumpyOne6 months ago

    The Census form needs to be simplified, unintrusive and take no longer than five minutes to fill out. IOW, just count people!

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  9. Barry Westfall6 months ago

    why would anybody want to tell the truth about how much they earned if it is going to be used to allocate funds for health and medical programs. The more a region or city says it earns, the less they will receive in aid. Don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that one out!

    Reply
  10. Larry Fries6 months ago

    The fear of law enforcement (local,state, and federal) will be a driving force until Congress acts! The questions part might be well served by a mailed in survey as part of the census.

    NO ONE BELIEVES THAT THE GOVERNMENT”S departments DO NOT share DATA!!!

    Reply
    1. Johngee6 months ago

      From the FAQ’s on the ACS: “We may combine your answers with information you gave to other agencies to enhance the statistical uses of these data”

      What “other agencies” are being referred to? Why would any “other agency” be involved? I thought this was for the census bureau info only.

      Reply
  11. Leslie6 months ago

    The Census (every 10 years) is very short and unobtrusive. The American Community Survey (annual for a much smaller number of households that change from year to year) asks some of the questions given as examples here.

    Besides giving the government a clearer picture of citizens’ actual situations in society (how well off or poorly they are), this information serves as a basis for sending money to states and local governments for schools, hospitals, roads, transportation – infrastructure and all sorts of new development and renewal.

    I would think Americans anywhere would welcome this opportunity to tell the government what is needed, rather than tell politicians what is wanted every four to six years.

    The latter seldom gets results that are needed or practical.

    Reply
    1. Redbear6 months ago

      In past years I have had no reservations completing such surveys. Not recently though. Answers confidential?? Have heard that before. You fill it out and be truthful. It’s safe…

      Reply
    2. Desert-Surfer2 months ago

      If you think it’s useful – Go Fill-Out a whole bunch of them. But don’t push this Unconstitutional garbage on me. It’s insulting and a disgrace that the Census Bureau even has the balls to ask law abiding citizens such personal stuff. My Message – Go Take a Hike and get some fresh air!!!!!

      Reply
  12. oldsalt6 months ago

    The Bureau of the Census needs to recognize that its former and current protestations of confidentiality, of all the data which it holds, now lie in tatters on the floor. In the main, this sad situation is not the result of any malfeasance by the Bureau, but rather because of rampant malfeasance by other arms of the federal government (and others) — in particular, the FBI, CIA, NSA, and various other spy or law-enforcement agencies. This malfeasance has occurred, and is occurring, during Administrations of both parties. As a sad result, no American of any political stripe — from the archconservative right to the progressive left — can have any confidence whatever that the statements of the Bureau of the Census about confidentiality can any longer be believed. If some government operative wants information from data collected by the Bureau, that entity is quite likely to get it, and probably without any intervention whatever from another branch of government such as the FISA Court (itself, simply a rubber-stamp star chamber affair, a complete travesty of justice). The Bureau itself might not even be asked. The individual no longer has any effective legal protection of privacy.

    Reply
    1. Williams Katherine6 months ago

      I’ll believe any of your statements are correct, when you identify cases where they have had such confidentiality breached by other governmental agencies.

      Reply
      1. Barbara6 months ago

        I totally agree with you!

        Reply
      2. Mark4 months ago

        Hmm … methinks you doth protest too much, here and in your numerous other posts …

        Did a little bit of research (used search aggregator search words ‘census data’ & respectively ‘breach/hack/leak’) & found the following:

        Census admitted to erroneously posting on public website 100s of individuals’ PII (personal ID info)

        Census admitted, and was named by GAO (Government Accounting Office), as agency with most government laptops with PII lost (100s)

        GAO recently named Census as among those needing to significantly update security, as it was 1 of 7 agencies with 10,000s of collective data breaches of PII – as reported to U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (collectively made public with the GAO report)

        Census did indeed collect SSNs in a pilot program of 10,000s, and made an interagency agreement with Social Security to share SSN info.

        Wikileaks has uncovered internal/nonpublic government documents using census data (and there is an interesting portion of a US Special Forces counterinsurgency manual specifying how one might use census data)

        At least 1 group has hacked Census data – R00tw0rm and Inj3ct0r

        Numerous academic citations to at least 2 authors who have used census data to determine how easy it is to personally identify someone with very little publicized data – Sweeney & Dalenius

        Much government security is generally less robust than commercial – and as others have noted, there have been plenty of significant data breaches of both commercial & government data – why would Census be any better?

        And with the various releases of hacked government data shows, plenty of security apparat gets info from Census & others – much of which sharing/collecting is secret under national security cloak.

        Having represented various government agencies I would certainly remain skeptical of any press releases or reports made by the agencies themselves – that’s why we continue to have whistleblower protections: agencies (as well as many others) will lie & cover up – from something as simple as honest mistakes (just embarrassing) to the more venal (using agencies for private plunder or partisan advantage). As a colleague once remarked, he was surprized that I was surprized that government reps routinely lie when defending themselves.

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  13. Mike6 months ago

    The Census is mandated by the Constitution. I don’t see any evidence that anyone has ever been asked about their religion in the Census. Information that is normally used is information about census tracts and cannot be associated with an individual. Some of the commenters seem to have quite a bit of paranoia.

    Reply
    1. Johngee6 months ago

      Paranoia…….I don’t see why anyone would fear answering personal questions to a government agency since we all know they are here to help us. We all know that nobody anywhere would have access to the data if not authorized and that nobody anywhere would use the information for personal gain or for other criminal intent. All government employees are honest and none would ever abuse their power. All of our politicians are honest too. I feel so much safer nowadays and totally trust the government.

      Reply
  14. Mike6 months ago

    Is there evidence that areas with historically higher response rates have benefited more from tax-subsidized development?

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    1. Williams Katherine6 months ago

      Of course not – because they wouldn’t. The point isn’t that people who answer get subsidies.

      The point that, if a school is identified as having inadequate resources to accommodate the number of students who will be entering in the next five years – i.e. by identifying how many 0-5 year olds are living in the area – the ACS helps identify that. If too many people in that community refuse, it impedes the ability to track that information, and prepare the school and it’s budget for that situation.

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  15. Janice Taylor6 months ago

    I want to know how the questions, “How many times have you been married?”, “When did you last get married”, “What were your last months gas, electricity bill?” “What were your last year’s water, sewer bill?” “Were you pregnant in the past 12 months?”, and information on your electronic devices and how you connect to the internet ANY of the government’s business.
    I read the questions to my mother, and she said it smacked of Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. Also, my City Council members said the party line that the survey helps in community planning is, and I quote, “B*llsh!t.”

    Reply
    1. MLD6 months ago

      Your City Council members don’t know what they’re talking about. All kinds of state, county, and regional organizations and governments use information from the Census ACS to inform planning and future projections, as well as how they spend current money.

      The information is anonymized and aggregated; you don’t put your social security number on the ACS form. I don’t see how this can be compared to something totalitarian except through misunderstanding.

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      1. Jewels6 months ago

        @Janice Taylor & MLD – The Nazi Germany reference isn’t far off. Hitler used census data to locate and target Jews in Europe. And Hitler is just one example. Indeed, census data has been used for abhorrent purposes here in the US too. General Sherman used census data in his scorched-earth march through Georgia. FDR used U.S. census data to help create the Japanese internment camps.

        And if you want to argue that these examples are too “historical” and couldn’t happen in this day in age, think again: In 2004, the Census Bureau gave info about Arab-Americans to the Department of Homeland Security. For what reason? They won’t tell us. But one thing is sure: This so-called “confidential” data is being shared with other government agencies, and for purposes beyond simple budget allocations.

        It’s hard to say that the horrors of the 19th and 20th centuries can be regarded as isolated incidents if all the government needs is a “proper” emergency as justification.

        Reply
        1. Williams Katherine6 months ago

          Yeah, except for a few key facts you failed to mention.

          “The data, from the 2000 census, had already been made public on the agency’s Internet site and did not include any individual names or addresses, information the agency is prohibited from disclosing. Further, Homeland Security officials have said the data were requested simply to help them decide at which airports they needed to post Arabic language signs, not for law enforcement purposes.”

          They HAVE said why they used it, they did NOT give out personal/confidential information, only statistical data – which is their job – and they also said…

          “But the Census Bureau director acknowledged at the meeting that by tabulating and handing over the data to the Department of Homeland Security, even if doing so broke no laws , the agency had undermined public trust, potentially discouraging Arab-Americans or other minority groups from filling out future census forms.”

          This is not WWII. Your comparisons are not remotely equal.

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      2. Johngee6 months ago

        Social Security numbers are required on the form so it is not anonymous. Mandated personal information given to a government agency can and will be misused and abused by some of those who gather or have access to the data or by anyone it is shared with. Enough data is already available through voluntary means and if someone does not want to reveal such details of their life then so be it. The census bureau needs to be abolished. Congress needs to cut the off the head of this ugly monster.

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        1. Lew6 months ago

          Johngee, where on the form do they ask for a Social Security number?

          Reply
          1. Johngee6 months ago

            My error…no SS # required on the ACS form.

        2. Williams Katherine6 months ago

          I’m curious – have you bothered to look at the forms are you are just assuming?

          I was a field rep for the ACS for about two years. I am perfectly aware of what information is on the form, and social security numbers are NOT collected on the forms, or in the computerized version used by reps doing personal interviews.

          Additionally, no one is required to answer any one question. During a personal interview in person or on the phone, or doing the paper survey, you are perfectly within your rights to refuse to answer any of the questions.

          It is very tricky if a person doesn’t even want to give their name or ages, but I even dealt with that circumstance in my job, by putting a set of John Smith names on the form, and noting on the form that the respondents chose not to provide any remotely identifying information.

          You clearly have not done your research on how the Census bureau works, or the invaluable information it provides, which is most definitely not available through other means – or do you know another means to get information on how far people commute to their jobs or how traffic and other issues can elongate the time it takes them?

          As a writer on fiscal/social issues, census data has been incredibly useful in my work. The statistical data they collect is available to the public as well as governmental agencies, and the perception of abuse is just that – a perception.

          So perhaps you should learn more about what the agency does, and how the information is used, before you suggest eliminating an incredibly useful agency, and thousands of jobs, in a economy that can hardly afford to learn more.

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          1. Johngee6 months ago

            You are correct about no SS# , although Item 47 of the ACS does ask a lot of financial information that could be cross verified using social security data held in the data banks of the IRS. That particular item sounds an awful lot like the questions asked on the mandated federal income tax forms that do require social security numbers. Everyone knows the common link between most federal databases is a SS#.

            You also said ” no one is required to answer any one question”

            In the FAQ regarding answering the ACS it is noted that “Your response to this survey is required by law (Title 13, U.S. Code, Sections 141 and 193). Title 13, as changed by Title 18, imposes a penalty for not responding”

            Sounds pretty intimidating for “voluntary compliance”. I guess adding threats is the only way the Census Bureau can get compliance from the citizens.

          2. Jermiah3 months ago

            1000s of useless govt jobs= more money for roads, military, fire, police etc

        3. Mar6 months ago

          Genealogists use the census to find ancestors, and to gain clues about where to look. Please don’t ever considering abolishing the census. I would not have been able to find out about my family and my children’s family without the past censuses.

          Reply
          1. John Went6 months ago

            Were you able to discover if they had flush toilets?

          2. R Tumenggung6 months ago

            The 1940 census asked about radio ownership.

        4. nancy4 days ago

          No SS are needed

          Reply
    2. Williams Katherine6 months ago

      Ask the census for statistics on marriage longevity rates.

      Ask the census for how expensive utilities are in San Francisco compared to Boise.

      Ask the census how many babies were born last year.

      Ask the census how many people are using mobile devices, and have adequate access to high speed internet and mobile internet services, in their region? And this last set of questions has only been added in the last 3 years – in particular to help identify areas where adequate broadband coverage isn’t available.

      These are all statistics that governmental agencies, social services groups, policy makers and journalists use, to do their job. The ACS is part of how they get that information.

      If you want to know the purpose of the questions, ASK. The computer programs for doing personal ACS interviews, have Help pages on every question, explaining how that information is used and what benefit it hold for the census to collect it. Your city council member clearly knows nothing about how the information is used, and also should bother to ask before he speaks.

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      1. Jill5 days ago

        What about the people that are sick. I have gone through a very traumatic event. I have not been home for awhile. I am suffering from PTSD and Anxiety. I arrived home from being gone for so long and about one hour later someone is knocking and I mean KNOCKING on my door so hard. I huddled in a corner filled with fear. When they left I opened the door and there was a card from ACS. It would be nice if they would realize that we are not all doing ok.

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