The US Census Bureau makes it clear that the American Community Survey (ACS) is authorized under Sections 141 and 193 of Title 13 of the United States Code, and that compliance with the survey is legally mandatory. Still, some citizens do not answer it. The 24-page survey, which can be found on the Bureau's website, is sent out to about 2.5% of the American population to collect statistical information for city planning. The US Census Bureau says it's an essential tool in collecting relevant and timely data in order to understand and finance local needs for things like roads and schools.
Objections to the ACS include the personal nature of some of its questions and, despite government assurances to the contrary, associated confidentiality issues. Some doubt these assurances based on the survey collection process itself. The census collectors or enumerators can ask for some sensitive and detailed information, such as salary or income. Title 13 of the United States Code, however, requires that the Census Bureau keep this information confidential and subjects employees who violate this confidentiality requirement to a fine of up to $250,000 USD, up to 5 years imprisonment, or both.
In addition, some point to the possibility of human error as a security concern over such personal and confidential information. On 22 September 2006, the American Broadcast Company (ABC) reported that, since 2003, the Census Bureau lost or reported stolen over 200 laptops and numerous handheld and portable data devices used by survey collectors. The Census Bureau insists that personal information contained in these devices was protected by passwords and other security measures.
The highly sensitive personal information provided on the ACS form gets keyed into a master data bank. The data bank, like any data bank, runs the risk of being hacked or accessed by dishonest parties. With identity theft on the rise, many are concerned. Some citizens believe that city planning should be carried out through the collection of anonymous, aggregate information. For these reasons and likely more, the ACS has been said to be unanswered by about 45% of its recipients.
When a citizen does not answer the ACS within 30 days, a second ACS form is automatically mailed. Eventually, a Census Bureau worker begins calling the home in an effort to elicit answers. The Census Bureau provides guidelines that prevent harassment or late night calls, although some ACS recipients have complained of getting several calls a day.
During such calls the survey taker reminds the resident that compliance with the ACS is mandatory. This warning is clearly stated on the ACS envelope, and the form itself threatens a fine for people who refuse or willfully neglect to complete the survey. The Census Bureau states on their website that failure to complete the survey is unlikely to result in such a fine, however.
If a citizen doesn't comply with the ACS after a period of weeks, Census Bureau guidelines instruct enumerators to stop calling the resident. At this point, according to the Census Bureau, a non-respondent has a 21% chance of being personally visited by a survey taker. The survey taker shows up at the residence unannounced to request that the resident comply with the survey or otherwise face potential legal repercussions. Continued refusal may lead to additional visits by a supervisor.
As a result of widespread concern and perhaps out of frustration with the survey, several websites have been set up to provide public forums for recipients of the ACS. According to some accounts, those recipients who chose not to return the form and did not respond to phone calls or private visits appeared to be hassled the least. Alternatively, those who returned the survey partially completed and communicated with the Census Bureau agents generally received more contacts.
In the end, the Census Bureau has the legal authority to conduct the survey and legally has the option of imposing fines for non-compliance. Some hypothesize that the Census Bureau will not take legal action against, or pursue fines for, noncompliance with the ACS because doing so would likely attract much negative media attention. Moreover, since there are no reported instances of the Census Bureau taking legal or financial action, some speculate that the Census Bureau's threats carry no weight. Nevertheless, fines and legal action are technically possible.