Big Brother wants to know…EVERYTHING!

I was planning to write something patriotic for Independence Day — you know, something about how an oppressed people living on the edge of an untamed continent stood up to tyranny; a people who, though vastly outnumbered and under-supplied, fought and won a long, hard war against the greatest economic and military power on Earth and, who, as a result of their victory, bequeathed to us a freedom that, until that time, no people in the history of mankind has ever known.

That’s what was on my mind when I staggered through the kitchen door Saturday evening after returning from a 58-mile bicycle ride that had left me utterly exhausted. I opened a Wild Cherry Pepsi, plopped myself down on a kitchen chair, propped up my sore legs, and called my son on my cell phone to let him know I had made it home more or less safely.

It was then that I noticed the winking red light on the remote handset of my landline phone. Someone had called while I was out on my ride. Who could it be? Except for telemarketers, hardly anybody calls me on that line (and telemarketers don’t leave messages).

With a great effort, I hoisted myself out of the chair and ambled back to my office to retrieve the message off the base station. It was somebody from the Census Bureau. Calling me at 5:37 p.m. on a holiday weekend. He left a telephone number and a “Case ID” with instructions to call back.

I knew what it was about. A couple weeks after mailing in my census form (and getting a visit from a census worker, because I was late mailing it in), I got a big envelope in the mail from the Census Bureau. Naturally, I assumed it was a duplicate census form and, since I had already sent mine in, I didn’t bother to open it. A few days later I received a postcard asking me to send the form back so, curious now, I opened the envelope.

It was not the usual census form. This was something called the American Community Survey. It was 28 pages long. In addition to that, there were 16 pages of instructions. The Census Bureau wants to know things like my name, age, date of birth, sex and race. They want the same information on anybody else living in the house and, in addition, want to know his/her/their relationship to me. (One of the choices is “unmarried partner”, and since they also want to know the sex of the other(s), I guess they’re asking if I’m gay. I thought they couldn’t ask that).

They want to know all about my house. When it was built, when I moved in, the lot size, how many rooms it has, if it has a flush toilet and hot and cold running water, what fuel I use for heating, last month’s electricity and gas bills, my sewer and water bills for the last year, if anyone in the house receives food stamps, the monthly mortgage payment, and how much I think I’d get for the house if I sold it.

Then it gets personal.

The Census Bureau wants to know if anybody living in the house attended school or college in the last three months and what grade he or she was attending; the highest level of education of each person in the house, and the academic majors of those with bachelor’s degrees; where each person lived a year ago; what health insurance plan covers each person in the house; whether anybody in the house is blind or deaf or has “serious difficulty concentrating or making decisions”; how many times each person has been married, and the year he/she last got married; if anybody is a veteran and, if so, the person’s service-connected disability rating; how each person gets to work, what time he/she leaves for work, and how long it takes to get there, down to the minute; the name of each person’s employer; each person’s “most important activities or duties” at work; and each person’s income, with the numbers broken down by source (wages, salaries, tips, self-employment, interest, dividends, Social Security, etc.)

This is not information I would share with my closest friends. Even the IRS is not that intrusive. Is the survey legal? Apparently it is. In fact, on the outside of the envelope, printed in big, bold letters is an ominous warning: YOUR RESPONSE IS REQUIRED BY LAW.

Says Constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute,

…the survey is not voluntary. Answering the questions is not a polite request from the Census Bureau. You are legally obligated to answer. If you refuse, the fines are staggering. For every question not answered, there is a $100 fine. And for every intentionally false response to a question, the fine is $500. Therefore, if a person representing a two-person household refused to fill out any questions or simply answered nonsensically, the total fines could range from upwards of $10,000 and $50,000 for noncompliance.

These penalties raise some troubling questions. For example, you are asked how much you think your house would sell for if it were offered for sale. Unless you’re actively trying to sell your house, it is not likely you’ve given the matter much thought. So if you’re off by, say, $50,000 does that mean you get fined $500? What if you’re off by $10,000? $5,000?

What about how many minutes it “usually” takes to get to work? “Usually” has no meaning in a statistical sense. The closest thing to it would be the mode, the most frequently occurring value, and in any given week there likely is no mode. It might take 83 minutes to get to work on Monday, 77 minutes on Tuesday, 91 minutes on Wednesday, 70 minutes on Thursday, and 80 minutes on Friday. Any answer you give would be false. Does that mean you get fined?

There are other problems besides the criminal penalties. How do they guarantee privacy? Various government databases have been hacked into in recent years. Even if the data don’t get hacked, the "legitimate" uses of it raise some disturbing questions. For example, government agencies use the data to justify ever more crippling regulations. And the data are made available to corporations so they can target us in their marketing campaigns.

Jerry Day, who has his own Burbank, CA, video production company, sent a list of ten questions to the Census Bureau, asking them under what authority they conduct this survey. He didn’t get answers to any of them. Here he talks about the American Community Survey and suggests what we can do about it.

I decided to ignore the survey, so I was sent a second one three weeks later. I have now had four written communications from the Census Bureau and have replied to none of them. So now, if what I have read on other people’s blogs is true, I can expect to be pestered with four or five phone calls. After that, I can expect Census workers to come to my house.

I’ve asked several of my friends if they have received the Survey, and none of them (including one who is a lawyer) had ever heard of it. They were appalled that a government agency would be asking such questions.

Supposedly, 250,000 households receive this survey every month. That there has not been a huge outcry against this abuse of government power is, in itself, somewhat appalling. Have people become so docile and complacent that nothing the government does is considered beyond the pale?

The Constitution authorizes a census every ten years for the purpose of apportioning among the states seats in the House of Representatives. There is no Constitutional authority to go beyond that. In fact, the American Community Survey violates the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

I don’t think the American Community Survey was what those patriots who stood at the Old North Bridge that April morning 235 years ago had in mind.

8 thoughts on “Big Brother wants to know…EVERYTHING!”

  1. Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution appears to give the Congress the authority to decide exactly what information is collected: “The actual Enumeration shall be made… in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”

  2. Fred, it says ENUMERATION, which is another word for COUNTING. The “manner” is just how the COUNT will be done. Nothing in that paragraph gives the government the authority to ask any question other than how many people live at an address.

  3. The constitution not only indicates the “enumeration” is for the purpose of establishing the level of representation in the House, it is also for the purpose of apportioning taxes.

    Don’t you think it would be worth discussing why the information is collected and how and by whom it is used? Community planners use the information to determine where to and where not to build new roads, hospitals, schools, shopping centers, etc. and where infrastructure, such as sewers, water systems and electrical grids need to be added or expanded. Without effective planning, a lot more of your tax dollars would go to waste as capacity is added where it isn’t needed and isn’t added where it is needed.

    I’m sure the ACS wasn’t what the founding fathers had in mind, but then again, I doubt they envisioned a population in this country of 310 million people and the level of planning and infrastructure it would take to support them.

  4. Regarding “apportioning taxes”, this refers to direct or capitation taxes based on a head count.

    I’ve already discussed what the information is used for. I don’t want the government doing the things they use the information for.

    I’m sure the ACS wasn’t what the founding fathers had in mind, but then again, I doubt they envisioned a population in this country of 310 million people and the level of planning and infrastructure it would take to support them.

    Are you saying that if the founding fathers knew the population would be larger they wouldn’t have included the 4th amendment? Seems to me, the larger the population, the more you need protections against unreasonable search.

  5. 1. You discuss what the government collects; you don’t discuss why they collect it other than to make the rather weak argument that they collect it in order “to justify ever more crippling regulations,” and so “corporations… can target us in their marketing campaigns.”

    2. My point regarding the founding fathers is that if they had known what the future held in terms of population, they most likely would have understood the need for planners to have access to the kind of information the modern Census provides.

    3. If the Census is unconstitutional because it violates the Fourth Amendment, why hasn’t it been curtailed? Clearly the accepted interpretation of Article 1, Section 2, is that the Congress has the right to determine what is counted as well as how it is counted.

    4. What about all of the other information collection that takes place? How about “cookies” on your computer? How about the “location” feature on cell phones? Credit card companies collect information on where and how you spend your money. Supermarkets collect information on what you buy. The government probably collects less information about you than the private sector does.

  6. What about all of the other information collection that takes place? How about “cookies” on your computer? How about the “location” feature on cell phones? Credit card companies collect information on where and how you spend your money. Supermarkets collect information on what you buy.

    Private companies don’t threaten you with fines and imprisonment if you don’t cooperate.

  7. “Private companies don’t threaten you with fines and imprisonment if you don’t cooperate.”

    The only penalties associated with the Census are fines; the threat of imprisonment was removed in 1976 (from Title 13, Chapter 7, SubChapter II):

    1976 – Subsec. (a). Pub. L. 94-521, Sec. 13(1), struck out
    provision authorizing imprisonment for not more than sixty days for
    refusing or willfully neglecting to answer questions under this
    Subsec. (b). Pub. L. 94-521, Sec. 13(2), struck out provision
    authorizing imprisonment for not more than one year for willfully
    giving a false answer to a question under this section.

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