Answering the US Census is Required by Law

While Rare, Fines Can Be Imposed for Failure to Respond

US Census
Answering the US Census is Required by Law. Teresanne Russell/Digital Vision Vectors

In each decennial census and in its more frequent counts like the American Community Survey, the U.S. Census Bureau mails questionnaires to millions of Americans. Many people fail to respond, either because they consider the questions too time consuming or too “nosey.” However, responding to all census questionnaires is required by federal law.

While it rarely happens, the U.S. Census Bureau can impose fines for failing to answer their questionnaires or for intentionally providing false information.

According to Title 13, Section 221 (Census, Refusal or neglect to answer questions; false answers) of the United States Code, persons who fail or refuse to respond to the mail-back census form, or refuse to respond to a follow-up census taker can be fined up to $100. Persons who knowingly provide false information to the census can be fined up to $500.

However, the Census Bureau points out online that under Section 3571 of Title 18, the fine for refusing to answer a bureau survey can be as much as $5,000.

Before imposing a fine, the Census Bureau typically attempts to personally contact and interview persons who fail to respond to census questionnaires.

Personal Follow-up Visits

In the months following each decennial census, more than 1.5 million census takers make door-to-door visits to all households that failed to respond to mail-back census questionnaires. The Census worker will assist a member of the household -- who must be at least 15-years old -- in completing the census survey form.

Census workers can be identified by a badge and Census 2010 bag.

Privacy of Census Responses

Persons concerned that their answers to census questions will not remain secret should know that under federal law, all employees and officials of the Census Bureau are prohibited from sharing a person's personal information with anyone else, including welfare agencies, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Internal Revenue Service, courts, police and the military.

Violation of this law carries penalties of $5,000 in fines and up to five years in prison.

The American Communities Survey

Unlike the decennial census, which is conducted every 10 years as required by Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, the American Communities Survey (ACS) is now sent annually to more than 3 million U.S. households.

If you are selected to participate in the ACS, you will first receive a letter in the mail stating, “In a few days you will receive an American Community Survey questionnaire in the mail.” The letter will go on to state, “Because you are living in the United States, you are required by law to respond to this survey.” In addition, the envelope will boldly remind you that, “Your response is required by law.”

The information requested by the ACS is more extensive and detailed than on the handful of questions asked on the regular decennial census. The information gathered in the annual ACS focuses mainly on population and housing and is used to update the information gathered by the decennial census. Federal, state and community planners and policy makers find the more recently updated data provided by the ACS more helpful than the often 10-year-old data from the decennial census.

The ACS survey includes about 50 questions applying to each person in the household and takes about 40 minutes to complete, according to the Census Bureau. 

“Estimates from the ACS contribute to providing an important picture of America, and an accurate response to the ACS questionnaire is important,” states the Census Bureau. “When used in conjunction with the most recently available decennial census counts, information from the ACS documents how we live as a nation, including our education, housing, jobs, and many other issues.”

Online Census Responses Coming

While the Government Accountability Office has questioned the cost, the Census Bureau is expected to offer an online response option for the 2020 decennial census. Under this option, people could respond to their census questionnaires by visiting a secure Web site.

Census officials hope the convenience of the online response option will increase the census response rate, and thus the accuracy of the census.