Answering the US Census: Is It Required by Law?

While rare, fines can be imposed for failure to respond

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The census is used to apportion members of the U.S. House of Representatives and for allocating funds for programs to help the needy, elderly, veterans, and more. The statistics also might be used by local governments to decide where infrastructure projects are needed.

Many people consider the questions from the U.S. Census Bureau either too time-consuming or too invasive and fail to respond. But responding to all census questionnaires is required by federal law. While it rarely happens, the Census Bureau can impose fines for failing to answer the census or the American Community Survey or for intentionally providing false information.

Initial Fines

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, could be fined up to $100. Persons who knowingly provided false information to the census can be fined up to $500.

But those fines have significantly increased as of 1984. The Census Bureau points out that under Section 3571 of Title 18, the fine for refusing to answer a bureau survey can be as much as $5,000, and up to $10,000 for knowingly providing false information.

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

Follow-up Visits

In the months following each census—which occurs every 10 years—an army of census takers makes door-to-door visits to all households that fail to respond to mail-back census questionnaires. In the 2010 census, a total of 635,000 census takers were employed.

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 a Census Bureau bag.

Privacy

People concerned about the privacy of their answers 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, U.S. 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.

American Communities Survey

Unlike the 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 3.5 million U.S. households.

Those selected to participate in the ACS 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 also states, “Because you are living in the United States, you are required by law to respond to this survey.” A note on the envelope reads, “Your response is required by law.”

The information requested by the ACS is more extensive and detailed than the handful of questions 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 policymakers 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, which states:

“An individual's responses are combined with others' responses to create and publish statistics for communities nationwide, which can then be used by community and local governments and the private sector. ACS estimates are often used to help establish priorities through a needs assessment, to develop general plans, research, education, and advocacy work.”
—ACS Information Guide

Online Census

While the Government Accountability Office has questioned the cost, the Census Bureau is currently offering online response options for both the ACS and the 2020 decennial census. Under this option, people can respond to their census questionnaires by visiting the agencies' secure websites.

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

Additional Sources

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  1. "13 U.S.Code § 221. Refusal or Neglect to Answer Questions; False Answers." GovInfo. Washington DC: U.S. Government Publishing Office.

  2. "18 U.S. Code § 3571. Sentence of Fine." GovInfo. Washington DC: U.S. Government Publishing Office.

  3. "2010 Fast Facts." History of the U.S. Census. Washington DC: U.S. Census Bureau.

  4. "13 U.S. Code § 9 and 214. Protection of Confidential Information." Washington DC: U.S. Census Bureau.

  5. "Top Questions About the Survey." Washington DC: U.S. Census Bureau.

  6. American Community Survey Information Guide. U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration. Washington DC: U.S. Census Bureau.