Constable: Big Brother? Uncle Sam uses your census answers

  • Providing personal information for the American Community Survey isn't just the patriotic thing to do. Cooperating with the U.S. Census Bureau has been required by the U.S. Code since 1790.

    Providing personal information for the American Community Survey isn't just the patriotic thing to do. Cooperating with the U.S. Census Bureau has been required by the U.S. Code since 1790. Courtesy of U.S. Census Bureau

  • Irish in 2015

    Graphic: Irish in 2015 (click image to open)

Updated 3/5/2015 5:44 AM

These U.S. Census Bureau mailings to 3.5 million American households a year seem to be asking for trouble in a nation where many residents pooh-pooh climate change, fear measles vaccines and don't trust anything anyone from any government agency says about Ferguson, Missouri.

You'd think the American Community Survey would bring out the reactionary, paranoid, freedom-preaching, "Don't Tread on Me" nuttiness in lots of folks. Why does the federal government need to know how much an old woman in Carol Stream spends on water and sewage each month? What business is it of Big Brother whether a Lake Barrington home is heated with kerosene or coke? And what does Uncle Sam do with the information once some guy in Wheaton identifies his race as Tongan and says he runs a barber shop out of his basement?


People sometimes question why they got the survey while their neighbors (who probably should be asked a few questions) didn't. But people do spend about 40 minutes answering all those nosy questions.

"Since 2005, the American Community Survey has produced an annual overall survey response rate of around 97 percent," says James Treat, chief of the American Community Survey Office. He compares filling out a survey to serving on a jury, paying taxes or getting a valid driver's license.

The Census Bureau can do more than push patriotic buttons to persuade people. Under Title 13 of the U.S. Code, a person who willfully ignores the survey can be fined as much as $100. That fine could be as high as $500 if you lie -- maybe claim to access the Internet through a "mobile broadband plan" because you don't want to admit to having a "dial-up service."

Treat says the Census Bureau has a thorough procedure to check for inconsistencies and inaccuracies and that people don't need to worry about their private information being shared with immigration officials, cops, the IRS, employers or cable-service providers.

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"We understand concerns about privacy. We want to assure you that we respect respondent privacy and will ensure that only authorized persons with a work-related need-to-know view respondent personal information," Treat says. The penalty for unlawful disclosure of that information is a fine of up to $250,000 or imprisonment of up to five years, or both, he adds.

Our Founding Fathers wrote Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, requiring our government to count every resident in the nation once a decade. But now, there is more information to gather, and a lot more ways to get it, so the Census Bureau is counting and asking questions all the time. In addition to mailing back forms, people can answer questions online, by phone or in person.

"The survey is the only source of local statistics for most of the 40 topics it covers, such as employment, language spoken at home, education and selected housing costs," Treat says. The information is used to help determine how more than $400 billion in federal and state funds is distributed each year.

But the survey also provides us with fun facts, such as the knowledge that the United States has seven times as many folks with Irish ancestors as does Ireland.


While Chicago goes all out for St. Patrick's Day, only 11.3 percent of city and suburban residents claim Irish ancestry. That's a little less Irish than the rest of Illinois and just half as Irish as Massachusetts.

We don't really have a German holiday, but a whopping 18.9 percent of Illinois residents claim German ancestry.

Poles rank third at 7.1 percent, followed by Italians (6.1 percent) and English (5.6 percent).

The Census Bureau's work also is how we know that by 2020, more than half of children will be minorities, that blacks will make up 17.9 percent of the U.S. population by 2060, that there were only 216 drive-in movie theaters left in 2012, that Obama and Eisenhower are the only presidents who don't share a last name with a town, county, borough or village, or that the non-Hispanic white population will peak at 199.6 million in 2024 and fall below 50 percent of the total population by about 2043.

The American Community Survey helps towns decide whether they need more playgrounds, more services for the elderly, or better transportation for people with disabilities.

And all the stats it produces are invaluable to newspaper columnists. It would be hard to write a Women's History Month column in March without knowing that our nation has 5 million more females than males, that the share of female pharmacists jumped from 12.1 percent in 1970 to 52.6 percent in 2010, or that women still live longer, vote more often, are better educated and make less money than men.

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