Answering the U.S. 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—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 Bureau bag.


Persons 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, 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.

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 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 goes on to state, “Because you are living in the United States, you are required by law to respond to this survey.” 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 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:

“Estimates from the ACS contribute to providing an important picture of America, and an accurate response to the ACS questionnaire is important. 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

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 website.

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