Fear of Big Brother and Government Surveys

April 3, 2012  |  Statistics

Other than ten-year population estimates, the United States Census Bureau annually collects information about how people live in the country through the American Community Survey. It's an eleven-page survey [pdf] that asks about your housing situation, education, and job, and there are 60 Republican members of Congress who want to make this currently mandatory survey optional.

The ACS will reach 3.5 million households this year, using dozens of detailed questions—including asking about a household's use of flush toilets, wood fuel and carpools—to determine the need for various government programs. The survey's mandatory status, along with telephone and in-person follow-ups to initial mailings, helps keep response rates near 100%.

Now, 60 Republican members of Congress, including presidential candidate and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, are challenging the survey's mandatory status, with a bill that would make it voluntary to complete the ACS. The push is fueled by privacy concerns and the very detailed nature of the questions.

Find the full details of the bill on the Library of Congress site. Things got interesting when I searched for this link.

To me, the ACS seems like it provides a useful collection of data to help decide how to "dole out more than $400 billion annually." That's not something you can do with anecdotes, and statistical estimates will always carry uncertainty with them that most likely will upset underrepresented areas, etc. Higher response rates usually provide better estimates. Plus, having visited the Bureau last summer, I never even remotely got the sense that anyone there was trying to pull a Big Brother. So if an ACS ever lands in my mailbox (or hopefully my inbox, sooner more than later), I'll fill it out to completion.

This guy, on the other hand, sees things differently, as shown in the video below. He goes through the questions and sarcastically voices his disgust. Then he burns the ACS and ends fittingly with a Ron Paul quote. (Paul, by the way has been against the survey for a while. Here's an article written in 2004.)

This guy didn't like it so much either:

Or this woman:

Even Glenn Beck had something to say about it in 2009.

In fact, you'll find a bunch of these videos with a quick search for American Community Survey on YouTube.

It's odd. Is this a vocal minority or a sample of the majority? Considering the near 100% response rate for millions of households, it's probably the minority, but still.

29 Comments

  • I like Ron Paul, but I like statistics better.

  • As someone that is a Genealogy buff, I’m in the census records all the time. So I gain a great deal of information from them. However, the question is not if the information is useful – all kinds of information is useful. That’s not the basis for determining if the government has the authority to collect the information by force. It has a certain role of authority. If people want to voluntarily provide that information, great, but the government is overstepping to require it by force when there is no constitutional authority to do so. If this information is for the local government, they have the authority to collect it, so let them do it if they so choose. People forget that we have a federalist structure – the fed is one of limited powers. People need to stop thinking they need to do it all – central focus of power is not a good thing.

    • Let me clarify that I’m speaking more broadly. This particular legislation my be constitutional, but it’s still overreach as far as I’m concerned. It’s beyond the intended function of the census – so such additional information should be voluntary.

  • Wayne Conrad April 3, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    I agree with Jeff G. I fill out as much of the census as is needed to do the job required of it (apportioning representatives), and no more.

    It’s not that data is bad. It’s that an overreaching government is worse.

    • Maxwell D April 3, 2012 at 1:34 pm

      An over-reaching federal government that wants to allocate adequate funding to sources that need it the most? I like my sidewalks paved and brownfields remediated–I think I’ll full out the survey.

      • Is that the role of the federal government or the local / state government? If your local or state government needs sidewalks repaved or brownfields remediated, they can raise the revenue themselves. That is not the role of the Fed in our Republic. This fed redistribution machine weakens you’re vote, centralizes power (centralized favors for special interests and lobbyist), and forces local and state governments to give up sovereignty for string attached funds that should be theirs in the first place. Carl stated it well below.

  • Carl Peterson April 3, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    The article is correct that these kind of statistics are uselful in doling out $400 billion dollars. The larger problem is that the government is doling out $400 billion dollars in programs!

    If the government stayed within due bounds, this survey would be unnecessary.

  • Maxwell D April 3, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    Jeff, where do you think local units of government get money to pay for these sorts of things? Yes, I want the federal government paying for brownfields to be remediated because it should be done in accordance of the guidelines of the to the most competent and able-bodied agency, the EPA. I’m not sure I like the idea of Michigan and Indiana picking and choosing different methods to remove environmental contaminants because politically, they have different goals, agendas, and budgets to carry such projects out.

    Think of the waste it’d create if states and local units of government had to start picking up the slack of programs and services the federal government. Also, do you really think a small communities can raise the revenue to build low-income housing or other projects that need a lot of financial leveraging?

    • What does following guidelines of the EPA have to do with funding? Do you suggest that every federal regulation, guideline, and standard be funded by the federal government? Maybe the FDA should fund all food and drugs… Where do you think the federal government gets the money to give to the local units of government but from the citizens of the State? If the Fed wasn’t taxing the local citizens for this redistribution scheme, the State would collect the revenue needed at no additional cost to the taxpayer (likely less, since the wasteful spending at the state/local level is more visible and held to higher account).

  • The federal system collects data like this and then gives it to local governments to do their planning. Where else would the data come from? Arguments about what the feds should be doing to help support quality of life and economic development aside, the ACS is necessary so that airports get built in the right place, schools get built, and sewer connections go in the right place. It is truly amazing to me that people will give away millions of data bits about themselves to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, and on their local grocery club card, but data for public good? Naaaaaaaaah.

    • Good thing the ACS has been around for the last 200 years to take care of all those necessary things… oh wait, it hasn’t. And what does the fed do to make sure airports get build in the right place, schools get built, and sewer connections go in the right place.. oh ya, nothing – it’s a state / local thing. Brilliant

      It’s not the giving of information for the public good that is of concern. It’s the act of getting that information by force under threat of jail, fines, etc. Giving money to someone out of charity is different then having them steal it from you by force. It’s the principle and the government role that is at issue, not the data. They’re just trying to make it voluntary, just as those other services you describe.

      • Maxwell D April 3, 2012 at 6:22 pm

        Yes, we have been able to complete major public projects without the ACS; however, the ACS allows us to make more informed, efficient, and effective decisions. Now if you can’t understand that, I give up on my argument.

        As for the EPA issue: the Environmental Protection Agency IS the body responsible for allocating funds for remediation and conservation projects, so it has everything to do with funding.

        Making the survey voluntary would make it totally useless in a scientific sense. It’s the same principal as if you took a poll on Facebook about what people thought of the Keystone Pipeline. The only responses you’d get would be from people passionate enough to have an opinion, not a true representation of how the population feels. A voluntary survey would give you a general idea of the characteristics of a population, at best.

      • It hasn’t been around for 200 years because it used to be collected every ten years along with the census. And, as I said, the federal government collects it and then gives it to the States. It became the ACS in order to decrease the Cendis burden. It would be
        impossible for states and localities to collect this info themselves. If indeed it does become voluntary, please feel free to skip it. That means you will not be counted, and means more tax dollars for others of us who are. This is clearly a case of nose to spite face.

      • Of course the EPA funds it now – that’s the point. That doesn’t answer why they fund it instead of the State funding it so they’re in compliance with the Federal regulations, like any number of other programs.

        Why are we talking about the EPA? What does that have to do with the questions in the ACS and the collection such information? I agree that the ACS allows us to make more informed, efficient, and effective decisions – more information often does, but where do you draw the line. It’s a slippery slope that will play to the politics of the next election, their questions, and sets a precedent that’s often difficult to walk back from. What leads you to the conclusion that making portions of the ACS voluntary would make it totally useless in a scientific sense? If so, is that not the role of State and Local governments to gauge their citizens needs if their information is insufficient, though it seems less information has been sufficient in the past (since these are new requirements). I don’t recall that being a role of the Federal Government as defined by our constitution – 10th Amendment leaves it to the States and the People. I expect a small percentage would opt out, particularly if tied to local funding.

      • As Virgina stated below, the survey is representative already. So you would adjust your distribution to make it statistically relevant. If 10% don’t wish to answer, then you can send out additional surveys to fit whatever level of scientific measure you’re trying to achieve. Problem solved

  • Last year we had a similar thing in Canada over the long-form census, which the Harper Government made voluntary.

    Munir Sheikh, the chief statistician, said the following in his resignation letter: “I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census.

    It can not.”

    Munir Sheikh was right.

  • I’m all for these surveys except for the ability to trace responses to individuals and forcing people to provide it through the fine. Ignoring the unlikely possibility of Big Brother activities (why wouldn’t they send it to everyone if that were the case?), there is no good reason to demand personally identifiable information besides a way to enforce the fine, and the fine is likely there in order to ensure the high response rate and generally increase the credibility of the data. This isn’t worth the invasion of people’s privacy.

  • Statistics by their nature are usually represent a subset of complete data. Getting 100% participation is rarely necessary to produce quality information. It seems reasonable that the vast majority of people would provide the information voluntarily (particularly its purpose was local funding), which would be acceptable for the intended purposes. It would certainly be acceptable for statistical infographics and data visualization.

    • But the ACS is already a sample. You need high response rates do that the data
      Matix
      Gripper Jeans
      $65.00

      Ambiguous
      Duffel Dart Denim Jeans
      $72.00

      Bullhead
      Dillon Skinny Slouch Black Rigid Jeans
      $49.50
      2 For $65

      Bullhead
      Dillon Skinny Jet Black Jeans
      $49.50
      2 For $65

      Bullhead
      Gravels Slim Inky Blue Jeans
      $49.50
      2 For $65

      Matix
      Twillinger Pants
      $62.00

      Volcom
      Randall Jeans
      $69.50

      Volcom
      Vapato Red Chino Pants
      $59.50

      Levi’s
      510 Rigid Stretch Dark Indigo Jeans
      $58.00
      Now $42.99

      More colors
      Volcom
      Enowen Jeans
      $49.50

      Ezekiel
      Weekender Twill Pants
      $55.00

      RVCA
      Weekender Dark Khaki Pants
      $49.00

      RVCA
      Lowside Bull Denim Jeans
      $72.00

      Levi’s
      510 Jet Black Jeans
      $58.00
      Now $42.99

      Bullhead
      Skinny Chino 2 Pants
      $49.50
      2 For $65

      Levi’s
      511 Chalked Gray Jeans
      $58.00

      Volcom
      Modern Chino 2 Pants
      $49.50

      More colors
      Lira
      Russian Jeans
      $60.00

      Volcom
      V.O.C. Pants
      $65.00

      Bullhead
      Dillon Skinny New Twill Pants
      $49.50
      2 For $65

      More colors
      Bullhead
      Dillon Skinny Black Jack Jeans
      $49.50
      2 For $65

      Ambiguous
      Low Card Corduroy Pant
      $62.00

      Levi’s
      511 Twill Coronet Blue
      $58.00
      Now $42.99

      More colors
      RVCA
      Daggers Jeans
      $69.00
      is representative of the entire population. You’ve confused soling with response rates. But as I said above, if you don’t fill it out and then don’t get the services you need because you weren’t counted, too bad.

      • Exactly – so why is 100% compliance required by force if we’re talking about sampling. Increase the sample size to compensate for voluntary action if needed to get your statistical requirements.

  • Maybe I’m an oddball, but seriously?!? *This* is what we’re worried about? The economy is in the gutter, cancer isn’t cured, huge numbers of good, hardworking people in this country have no viable access to health care (for themselves & more importantly for their children), and our government is spending time, energy and money debating whether or not it’s an invasion of privacy to ask me about flush toilets?!? Ya’know what? Invade my demographic privacy — heck, ask me about my sexual history, my religious beliefs, and whether or not I have any uniquely identifying birthmarks — I really don’t care… at least not if it helps to fix the *big* issues!

    • I think the point is that some believe that the federal gov’t is perfectly capable of fixing the “big” issues and others feel that the federal government is the worst option for fixing “big” issues. The two shall never agree. I side with the latter.

      • No, Dave, the point is whether one understands the role of the federal statistical system and what it has been doing for the past 200+ years in its role as an information gatherer for US society and economic development. Clearly, most posters here have no sense of what the Census and the ACS do, and have no sense of what statistical sampling is.

      • We’re not talking about the normal census questions, so why don’t you enlighten us… What is the role of the federal statistical system for the past 200+ years and why does it now require force to gather a statistical sampling?

      • Virginia, I stand by my comment despite the history you laid out below. My comments were directed at the previous poster’s view regarding the role of gov’t to “fix things” and was not a commentary on the history of the federal statistical system.

  • Jeff – The “normal” census questions HAVE been asked for the last 100+ years.

    There historically have been two forms that would go out every 10 years – the “short form” – the one that everyone gets, used mostly for apportioning districts, and the “long form” that had all the questions that are now gathered by the ACS, and was sent out to a sample of households so that population estimates could be determined. Answering the Census whether short or long form, has always been mandatory (“force” as you call it). It i,s only with the Census 2010 that the ACS is now a separate survey, and is just as mandatory as the Census from which it has come. So yes, that is the whole point – THE ACS IS NOTHING NEW. It is merely the Census long form, made into a separate survey. And it is sent to a SAMPLE of households, just like the long form used to. A scientific sample, chosen to be representative of the population. If not all of the sample households fill it out, then it is biased. That’s why they try to get a 100% response rate. What if the only people who sent it back, for example, were retired folks with time on their hands? Then you’d have low, biased response rate for your sample.

    The role of the federal statistical system? Such questions as — Where do we need rural electrification? Where is there still no indoor plumbing? Where do people commute long hours to work? What occupations have high unemployment rates? Where is it likely an elementary school will be needed in the future? What towns will be by-passed when the federal highway system is built? How many disabled veterans are there in the US? Marketing and advertising firms rely on these data, as does the Federal Reserve Bank, your local realtor, and etc. The list of questions goes on …

    • Good response Virgina – some accurate points. I’ll only rebut that the long form has only been around for the last 5 decades, so its history is limited. Roosevelt and Truman did quite a many things that were huge shifts in federal power that were constitutionally questionable and set precedence. I don’t see it being nothing new as a reason for it being good policy. I still think it’s improper and an overreach of federal power.

  • John Galt April 9, 2012 at 8:50 am

    The ACS is not new for 2010; I got tagged for it in 2008.
    I looked at the questions, decided that I wasn’t going to answer them. “None of your business”. Thinks like “What days do you work? What time do you leave for work? How far away is work?” sounded like a burglar casing my house.

    They sent me a second form. Didn’t return that. A third one followed. Didn’t return that either.
    Then the phone calls started. I was always polite, and informed them that I would not comply.
    They informed me that it was “mandatory”. I told them that I understood.
    Five calls over two months.

    Then people started showing up at my house.
    Three different times they came by. Each time was the same.
    “I’m not going to answer your questions.”
    “You understand that you are required by law to answer the questions?”
    “Yes, I understand”

    When the 2010 census came around, I was tempted to answer only the first question “How many people live here”, but being an amateur genealogist, I relented and listed the residents and their birth dates. The rest of the stuff? Pfft.

Unless otherwise noted, graphics and words by me are licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC. Contact original authors for everything else.