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October 16, 2011 7:51 PM   Subscribe

Anyone go through the American Housing Survey interview? What happens? How intrusive is it?

A few months ago, we got a letter from the Census Bureau saying that we had been selected to take part in the American Housing Survey. The letter said that we as individuals hadn't been selected -- it was the address, everything will be held in strictest confidence, a representative will be contacting us shortly, etc. etc. It also included a worksheet, where they want to know the electricity and gas bills for January, April, August, and December; garbage and trash collection fees, water and sewer costs, and a bunch of questions regarding our house (real estate taxes, down payment on the house, what the mortgage loan was, what was the down payment, how much we still owe, current payment, interest rate).

We didn't hear anything at all from these folks -- until last Thursday, when I got a letter from them saying they've been desperately trying to contact us and failed, and we need to call them to schedule an interview ASAP. I didn't have any phone messages or other letters from these folks, honest.

Then on Friday (the very next day) I come home from shopping to find a letter shoved under my front door saying I need to contact the field rep pronto and that she is obliged to return until she makes contact.

They want to see utility bills from the months mentioned (January? Are you fucking kidding me?) and mortgage statements (payments go out online through my husband's account).

Looking online it sounds like the questions on the worksheet are not the only questions asked -- they have been known to ask when everyone in the house goes to work each day, and other minutiae.

So what happens in these things? It sounds like it isn't a phone interview -- they do come to your house and poke around. My husband is on an extended business trip (won't return until mid-November) and I feel uncomfortable dealing with this by my lonesome. It does say on the survey that I can decline to answer any or all questions. It also says that the survey is voluntary and held in the strictest confidence, but then I read that if I wish to keep my information from being combined with information from other agencies, I have to state that explicitly to the field rep. Does that mean (for example) if one of the rooms is being used as a bedroom and not an office, she will duly report this to the IRS?

They go on and on about how this is a great public service that will help the country -- and I don't dismiss that. I just feel like I'm being forced to cram for a mid-term (or a pap smear!) by some officious government nerd.

Anyone do one of these things? Wha' happen, Lucy?
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord to Law & Government (9 answers total)
 
I hate to say it, but are you SURE this is legitimately the Census Bureau? I mean, I knew someone who worked for them for about a decade (as I did myself one year), and have never heard of this demand for such private details, including seeing your bills and mortgage statements. Frankly, unless you get proof that this is indeed the US Treasury Department's Census, and not some sort of scam, I'd advise you to refuse to cooperate, and definately NOT let these people into your home. At the very least, call your local Census office (and NOT some phone number these folks have provided to you: get out a phone book and look up the number yourself!) and confirm what this is all about.
posted by easily confused at 3:06 AM on October 17, 2011


How do you cram for a pap smear?! But seriously, I agree with easily confused, do not let these people into your house, do not answer their questions. They want extensive financial information about your family and essentially when your house is going to be empty. Risk vs Reward - if its not a scam, there's still no up-side for you personally, if its a scam, you're giving them everything they need to rob you or kidnap a family member for ransom.
posted by missmagenta at 3:20 AM on October 17, 2011


I would never agree to this.
posted by Flood at 3:21 AM on October 17, 2011


Good Lord, what's with the anti-government paranoia? The American Housing Survey is in fact something that the Census Bureau does, and the data they collect includes everything you've mentioned above. The risk of being scammed with the info they're asking for seems minimal: it would be an incredibly lax bank that would allow an identity thief to fleece you with knowledge of a mortgage loan amount or your monthly payment.

I participated in the similar American Community Survey last year, which is a multi-page questionnaire about everything from your rent payments to your commuting time. (This may be what those websites were talking about when they mentioned asking about the time people leave for work, by the way; the AHS doesn't appear to collect that kind of information.) My view on this is that this kind of thing is a hassle, but a boon to society — kind of like voting. By all means, do your due diligence and satisfy yourself that these people are really from the U.S. Census Bureau. But if that checks out, then I think you should just fill out the questionnaire and try to feel a flush of civic pride.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:51 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


You can call them.

To see the things which get asked, check out the codebook. For example, they want to know how long people spend commuting.

They want to see utility bills from the months mentioned (January? Are you fucking kidding me?) and mortgage statements (payments go out online through my husband's account).

If you don't have them, they'll take your word for it.

My husband is on an extended business trip (won't return until mid-November) and I feel uncomfortable dealing with this by my lonesome.

Then say no. You won't be the first. Census workers aren't terribly intimidating to me, but it's your house.

I read that if I wish to keep my information from being combined with information from other agencies, I have to state that explicitly to the field rep. Does that mean (for example) if one of the rooms is being used as a bedroom and not an office, she will duly report this to the IRS?

They are not in the same universe of coordinated as needed to do that. This data generally gets used at many levels for planning purposes. See their FAQ. It is illegal for them to use the data for non-statistical purposes.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:52 AM on October 17, 2011


I worked for a company that performed a similar government survey, and I now work for the government and use the results from similar government surveys.

No, this information will not be shared with the IRS. Us survey and government folks are really big on confidentiality. There are LOTS of technical and bureaucratic safeguards in place. (For example, your personal data - like name, address, etc. - is generally stripped off the dataset used for analysis.) There are also hundreds of people in the government whose job it is to keep the data confidential. Not only will they not give it to the IRS, but a lot of the time they won't even give it to other researchers because it is their job to be paranoid. The people they work with tend to hate them. You would probably like them. We do sometimes try to combine data from different surveys or combine survey data with administrative data; yes, that might include tax data. But you know those people whose job it is to keep the data confidential? You should see how paranoid they get when it comes to combining data. Really, the researchers will not know who you are. And we're not interested: we just want to run regressions and calculate averages.

The people who are contacting this really want you to participate. They will go out of their way to make it easy for you. If you want to wait until your husband comes home, tell them. They will reschedule. If you want them to come on Tuesday afternoon at 2:47 pm and then come back again on Thursday at 8:56 am, they will try to make that happen. Again, it is their job to get you to participate, and part of the way they do that is to make things as easy as possible for you.

Finally: Could you please participate? People complain that the government doesn't understand what's happening out there. Surveys like this are one of the main ways we can understand. It affects what happens.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:36 AM on October 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


Second Mr.Know-it-some; the survey itself is much more accurate if everyone participates (especially those who are reticent!), and the survey-takers (really underpaid and underappreciated for the work they do!) have to strike a weird balance between being persistent and annoying respondents.

At the Census Bureau they place the upmost importance on confidentiality and non-identifiability (its federally mandated), to the point where they have told the FBI to fuck-off when they tried to pressure them into releasing information!

And only averages and summaries of data is released to the public.

Despite all of that they will ask some questions about salary, spending, commuting, etc.
posted by stratastar at 3:21 PM on October 17, 2011


I did this very recently.. it was no big deal. I never got the letter, so the first I'd heard of it was when the census employee knocked on my door. Once she'd convinced me that she really did work for the census, we did the interview right then... the "prep" worksheet apparently wasn't necessary.

I didn't find it that invasive, really. They ask about your personal income and your mortgage/rent and utility payments, but other than that it was entirely questions about the physical condition of the housing unit and a couple questions about the neighborhood. You don't have to answer anything you don't want to.
posted by everybody polka at 4:05 PM on October 19, 2011


An update:

I did some additional research to put my mind at ease, and called the census person, who seemed like a very nice lady indeed.

She told me that it would be a phone interview only (huzzah!) so we made an appointment to speak on the phone -- that appointment was this morning (whoa, earthquake just now -- weird).

The interview took about 50 minutes, and in addition to asking about the mortgage and utilities, she wanted to know about any improvements we have made to the house since we bought it, what sort of appliances we had, if any of our rooms had special accommodations for physical disabilities, if we thought that our water was safe to drink, etc etc. I'm glad I took the time to answer the questions on the worksheet first -- made it a lot easier.

Since the property was last surveyed in the late 90s, a lot of the questions were of the "Last time, the property had X. Is that still true today?" which made it easier to answer.

Finally, if I had any doubts as to whether this was a legitimate government survey, they were allayed when the poor woman kept apologizing for the computer program she was using ("Why is it telling me to ask that? I just asked that!")

Thanks to all who responded!
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 2:49 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


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