Protecting privacy (and solitude)
March 18, 2010 7:52 AM   Subscribe

It's census time. I'd like to share as little as possible. What's the minimum requirement?

I've heard the U.S. Constitution only requires that I answer the first question, about the number of occupants in my household, and everything else is optional. Is that true? Even if that is true, I've heard census workers may still come out in person to pressure me for more info if that's all I provide. What is the truth and what is urban legend? What's the bare minimum I can do without getting in trouble and/or being harassed for being a "bad American?" If a census worker comes to talk to me, can I respectfully decline to provide more detail without facing legal penalties? The Census web site is surprisingly silent about these matters, assuming everyone will be fully compliant.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (43 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What's the big deal? The form just asks how many people live in your house, what the address of the house is, and, optionally, what the names of the people who live in your house are. All these data are accessible on Google anyways, and it's not like the government is going to sell them to marketers or anything.
posted by Electrius at 7:54 AM on March 18, 2010 [14 favorites]

It's pretty clear what the consequences will be if you don't completely fill in the form: What if I don't fill in the form?
Many residents who do not complete and return a 2010 Census form will receive a replacement form. If no form is mailed back, residents can expect a personal visit from a census taker some time after March 2010. The census taker will ask you the questions on the form, record your answers and then submit the form for your household.
Two questions later: Do I have to fill the form in?
Yes. Respondents are required by law to answer all questions to the best of their ability.
"required by law" links to the following:
Title 13

Sec. 221. Refusal or neglect to answer questions; false answers

(a) Whoever, being over eighteen years of age refuses or willfully neglects, when requested by the Secretary, or by any other authorized officer or employee of the Department of Commerce or bureau or agency thereof acting under the instructions of the Secretary or authorized officer, to answer, to the best of his knowledge, any of the questions on any schedule submitted to him in connection with any census or survey provided for by subchapters I, II, IV, and V of chapter 5 of this title, applying to himself or to the family to which he belongs or is related, or to the farm or farms of which he or his family is the occupant, shall be fined not more than $100.

(b) Whoever, when answering questions described in subsection (a) of this section, and under the conditions or circumstances described in such subsection, willfully gives any answer that is false, shall be fined not more than $500. (c) Notwithstanding any other provision of this title, no person shall be compelled to disclose information relative to his religious beliefs or to membership in a religious body.
Emphasis mine.
posted by muddgirl at 7:58 AM on March 18, 2010 [6 favorites]

You may be interested in this discussion of the census at the generally well-regarded

For 2010, the Census Bureau trimmed the questionnaire to just the basics: name, gender, race, and ethnicity or each person, and whether the dwelling was owned, rented, or "occupied without payment of rent." Which seems to me pretty minimal. You are required by law to fill it in in its entirety or face a fine of $100. 13 USC 221
posted by crush-onastick at 8:01 AM on March 18, 2010

Completing the Census is required by law. See 13 U.S.C. 221. Other sections deal with fines and prison time for other refusals to cooperate with the Census.

So, whatever your obligations are under the Constitution, you are obligated under federal law to comply in full with the Census. And why wouldn't you? As Electrius notes, the private sector already knows everything (yes, everything) about you, and the U.S. government is not going to resell your data. Considering that the Census dictates how electoral lines are drawn and government funds are allocated, you have a civic duty to comply, irrespective of the legal obligation to do so.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:03 AM on March 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

What about my phone number and name, though? Is that really necessary to gather general information?
posted by moviehawk at 8:08 AM on March 18, 2010

Hi-jacking to ask: but what if you don't get the form??
For various reasons, I get my personal mail through a work address which is the address I use for filing taxes & on my license. Can I call and ask for the form?
posted by jaimystery at 8:10 AM on March 18, 2010

jaimystery - see my link above in "What if I don't fill out the form"?

What if I don't receive a form?
If you did not receive a form, call the Telephone Questionnaire Assistance center at 1-866-872-6868. (If you prefer a Spanish-speaking operator, then dial 1-866-928-2010.) The lines will be open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. (your local time) seven days a week from February 25, 2010 through July 30, 2010. For the hearing-impaired, TDD 1-866-783-2010 (during the times noted above).
posted by muddgirl at 8:12 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, the form explains why they ask for your phone number. They'd like to be able to call you to clarify any unclear answers, rather than send someone out to your place of residence. Census takers are really expensive. Phone banks, less so.
posted by muddgirl at 8:13 AM on March 18, 2010

Every question that they put to you, you are required by law to answer. There are privacy protections in 13 U.S.C. 9--they can't use any of your data for anything other than the Census. It's not marketing, the draft, or vivisection--it's how they know how much funding to give your local hospital, and how many Representatives to give your state in Congress.

Answer the questions.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:21 AM on March 18, 2010 [11 favorites]

Realistically no legal penalties will be brought against you. However they really only ask your name, birth, age, and ethnicity; plus gathering your name and birth are required by the Constitution.

The Census Bureau is basically built around firewalls to make sure that your personal information doesn't get released. The FBI or any other government agency can't ask (nor will they receive) it, and there are severe penalties within the Bureau for the negligent release of any personal information.
posted by stratastar at 8:21 AM on March 18, 2010

I've heard the U.S. Constitution only requires that I answer the first question, about the number of occupants in my household, and everything else is optional.

The actual text says, "The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. " The fun part of that sentence is which meaning of "enumeration" is used: to count, or to list.

Of course, that is just theoretical wanking to go back to the original Constitution, since people have sued over this and the courts have decided against them. The census website has a page on whether questions beyond a simple count are Constitutional.
posted by smackfu at 8:22 AM on March 18, 2010

I think it's worth noting that there's a distinction between the letter of the law and its implementation. Yes, you are required to complete the form. I encourage you to do so and you could be fined if you don't, but, really, if you don't fill out the form, I doubt you'll be punished. Thousands fail to be counted for a variety of reasons.

Please, someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it highly unlikely that the census if doling out these fines on a large scale. Nothing will happen if you refuse to answer your door when the census taker comes around, I bet. However, you will be reducing the quality of our government's data on the population. If that sits right with you and you don't mind the risk of a modest fine, I think you can refuse to tell the government your age, race, and phone number with few ill effects.
posted by reren at 8:24 AM on March 18, 2010

Do us other taxpayers a solid and mail back a completed form ($0.42) instead of making the Census Bureau send someone to find you (estimated cost: $56). source

If a census worker comes to talk to me, can I respectfully decline to provide more detail without facing legal penalties?

Nope. They're just going to ask you the questions on the form and basically fill it out for you.
posted by scatter gather at 8:29 AM on March 18, 2010 [13 favorites]

I wonder what the OP actually thought was on the census form?

Just filled mine out last night:

basically 10 questions, most of which could be easily gathered elsewhere by government or law enforcement agencies if they really wanted to get you. You are on the internet, therefor it is just a few steps for someone with the authority to, to track you down.
The census route is a much more difficult route to do so.
posted by edgeways at 8:34 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've heard the U.S. Constitution only requires...

FYI, the Constitution isn't the only law.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:41 AM on March 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

They're not doing the long form this time around. In 2000 some people got an extended form that asked more intrusive questions -- maybe that's what the OP wanted to avoid.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:43 AM on March 18, 2010

There's still a long form, which is apparently also sent out by the census in non-census years.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 8:54 AM on March 18, 2010

Searching the various entertaining Tea Party sites reveals nothing of value. Just lay a hundred bucks aside for when the census worker visits you, if you wish to make a stand. The information is available elsewhere, but if you feel you must do it, have the money ready.

Remember, kids, once you give up data, there's no telling how it will be used, by who, for what reason. "Firewalls" has been suspended before and that act was hidden for quite some time. Bet it won't ever happen again? As long as there's a war on, any war, there's a pretext, and when was America last not at war, on terrorism, on drugs, for oil?

Civic duty indeed.
posted by adipocere at 8:57 AM on March 18, 2010

To those of you afraid of the Census: why? This enumeration is used to correctly dole out tax revenue to schools, hospitals and government agencies that help people via funding. It also goes to transportation departments so our roads are drivable. It goes to first responders. This thing - the Census - helps people LIKE YOU. There is no downside (paranoia aside) and every upside to filling out the Census forms fully and accurately. Just do it, please. It's your civic duty.

To the OP: I just got my Census form two days ago. It asks really, really basic information, the kind of information anyone can get from anywhere on the internet. Name, age, birth date, address, ethnicity. That's it.
posted by cooker girl at 8:58 AM on March 18, 2010 [17 favorites]

What, you think if the Japanese community, en masse, had decided not to fill out the census, TPTB would have thrown their hands up and said, "Whelp, folks, we just can't find those potential traitors. Guess we better leave them alone!"

Every year, we submit more information to the US government than we do on the census, save for the nebulous "race" question. It's called "IRS tax forms", and those have actual, enforced penalties for refusing to submit them.
posted by muddgirl at 9:04 AM on March 18, 2010 [9 favorites]

I've heard the U.S. Constitution only requires that I answer the first question, about the number of occupants in my household, and everything else is optional. Is that true?

This is not true. You would have to somehow get the Supreme Court to hold that it is unconstitutional for the Census to required answers for all the other questions. This has never happened, and never will happen.
posted by spaltavian at 9:10 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

You have to answer all the questions to preserve your solitude as the Census will keep knocking on your door if you don't fill out the form. Your privacy is protected by the Census and they do a pretty good job of it, making your information available only after 72 years after the Census was taken.

Of course, this is a boon to those who like to do genealogical research, as in 2 years the 1940 Census will be available for them. Just imagine in 2082, one of your great-great whatevers will be able to track their lineage through you.
posted by inturnaround at 9:21 AM on March 18, 2010

I want to throw something else out there - some time in the future, someone related to you is going to want to know where they came from and who they're related to. Old Census records are an absolute gold mine for genealogists. As far as privacy or identity theft, don't worry - census records are not released for 72 years.

Recently I realized that I know virtually nothing about my family history past my grandparents on one side, and started looking back on my family tree. My grandfather showed up on the 1930 census - the most recent one released - as a four-year old. I learned the name of his mother and his grandparents, and was able to really get started looking back. (Boy, did that get him talking. He was thrilled to see the printout of the old record, and told me what directions to start looking.) The Census becomes an important part of our historical record, and the information they are asking for is far less invasive than what many businesses and local governments already have about you.
posted by azpenguin at 9:23 AM on March 18, 2010 [7 favorites]

(and... I just posted the long version of what inturnaround just said.)
posted by azpenguin at 9:24 AM on March 18, 2010

I filled mine out. Only question i didn't answer was the status between me and my girlfriend. None of there business and no apparent reason I can think of that the governemnt should care. I feel the same about ethnicity-aren't we supposed to be a color blind society? and what exactly do most of the options mean? How much african ancestry to be black? and what about a recent emigrant from south africa that is of boer ancestry? are they white or african american? So then is just about skin color? and if so what does that say about color blindness? So anyway I said I was Indo-European, which is accurate, true and at least somewhat meaningful as to actual ethnic-genetic heritage. Although the only distinction I can think of in reality is that it makes me more likely to be lactose tolerant into adulthood, which is convienient since I like ice cream so much.

Anyway after a long rambling largely meaningless answer-you are a free citizen of this country. This come with rights and responsibilities. Answering the census is one of those. Answering only the reasonable questions is also one of those. Let your concious be your guide and be prepared to pay the price for your (minor) civil disobediance. And also recognize either way it probably won't change anything.
posted by bartonlong at 9:35 AM on March 18, 2010

I literally just did my Census form. It took two minutes. It wanted my name, phone number, age and birth date. It also wanted to know if lived alone, rented, owned, owned with mortgage, and my race. The reason it ask for occupants was to allow for the same information as 11 other people.

It was painless. It was quick and it's already in the mailbox waiting to go. As others have pointed out, you've already provided more information via taxes and probably on credit card applications (minus the race). Also as pointed out, the Constitution is the starting point for law, not the end of it. It gives Congress the power to make laws, such as requiring you to fill out the form. Even if the Constitution is at first glance silent on a specific topic, that does not mean 1) that some part of the Constitution has been directly applied to the problem you're facing and 2) that it has not given Congress the power to make those laws.

In other words, you'll cause yourself more stress and fear by NOT filling out the form than simply taking the two minutes to do so. In regard to one question, don't worry about what you have to do to meet the bare minimum, as filling out the form is pretty much it. Also as pointed out, your information will not be given to tax collection agencies or law enforcement, helping to insure your privacy and solitude.
posted by Atreides at 9:38 AM on March 18, 2010

There are very few civic responsibilities anymore. The census is one of them. I'd advise filling out the form, for reasons stated by others eloquently above. If your desire to be minimalist is a form of protest, which it is for some people (including Michele Bachmann, who is under the erroneous belief that the only "required" information is number of people in household), I don't know what to say, other than good luck.

"The government already has this information via other means" and "The government already knows all it wants to know about you anyway" is not a defense for filling out the census. If you don't want to fill out the census, you're not going to fill it out, and those defenses aren't going to make you more likely to do it. If anything, they'll probably steel your resolve not to fill it out.
posted by blucevalo at 9:44 AM on March 18, 2010

There's an article on Slate about this today.
posted by Perplexity at 9:48 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

(oh, right, I forgot about the owning/renting question and the how many people live in your home question.)
posted by cooker girl at 9:52 AM on March 18, 2010

To answer your question directly:

I've heard the U.S. Constitution only requires that I answer the first question, about the number of occupants in my household, and everything else is optional. Is that true?

No, it is not.

The Constitution allows Congress a wide-ranging capacity to gather information. Congress can compel you to truthfully reveal essentially anything that is not incriminating.

Yes, the Census will send people out to speak to you if you don't answer, possibly accompanied by law enforcement if they think you're going to be twitchy.

The bare minimum that you can do is fully complete whichever form you are sent to the best of your knowledge.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:03 AM on March 18, 2010

I was a Census taker in 2000 for the part-time work, and ended up as a supervisor of several others in my area.

If we didn't get information from a household, we had to go back out there again and document that we had done so until we could get the information. As a last resort, we had to ask the neighbors if we couldn't find the people for a certain address. The only issue that would keep us away from a home was if a Census taker legitimately felt endangered, like if there were dangerous animals, which rarely happened.

The thing is, when you become a Census taker, you are not legally allowed to even report on criminal activity on the homes you visit. Illegal aliens? Doesn't matter. You can't report them. It's been legally challenged and stood up in court that it would violate the rights of the individuals involved.

So just answer the questions. Funds are allocated to your community based on the results.
posted by misha at 10:20 AM on March 18, 2010 [6 favorites]

As others have noted, your privacy is protected by the law. Even within the Census Bureau itself, your identity is protected under layers.. so if you're worried about a random census worker poking through your information, yeah, it's not going to happen. Fill the goddamn form so you can get all those good things that come with being an American, like hospitals and roads and schools and utilities and government representation and whatnot.
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 10:23 AM on March 18, 2010

[few comments removed - if you are not answering this question, please do not comment, thanks]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:42 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

To those of you afraid of the Census: why?

A lot of people think the Census ought not to be asking people about their race and/or Hispanic origin, and would prefer not to answer those questions. For example, people with ancestors of many different origins might object to being forced to pick one label, or might find the question nonsensical.

If, anonymous, you feel this way, you might consider the option of checking "some other race" for question 9, and writing in "American."
posted by miskatonic at 10:54 AM on March 18, 2010

Fill out as much as you feel comfortable. NOT sending in a form is what brings a Census worker to your home to obtain only the information asked on the form. Have you pulled out and looked at the form and the questions? Frankly, other than the heritage (e.g. race) question, all the questions on the census form I received are exactly the same as the information contained on my drivers license and passport (passport doesn't have a residence/address, drivers license doesn't have my place of birth).

Again, other than the heritage question, the information they ask is already out there in public ways. Answers on the Census form are NOT available to the general public for 72 years AFTER the census is taken. So why be worried about someone in the year 2082 and beyond can learn about you?!? No offense, you'll likely be dead by this point, as will most of us adults.

I'm also biased on this answer because I am a professional historical researcher and census records from the 18th and 19th have sometimes provided the ONLY record of the existence of people I research. If you think today's questions are nosy and intrusive, the US census for years 1880 - 1930 (among those currently available) asked such things as property value (assuming you owned property) and other personal questions. We today actually have it fairly simple and straightforward. I'm sure my grandparents (on both sides) don't mind my knowing they had a radio in 1930. And my knowing the real history of one of my grandparents helps me frame exactly when it was they began the revisionist version of their life! So there you have it, one of my grandparents provided fraudulent information on the 1930 census!!! Shock!!! Horror!! Nothing ever happened to them because of it... and from the point of view of the casual researcher/observer, their secrets are very safe.

And lastly, since the Census is the basis by which governmental decisions are made in regard to drawing Congressional districts, the disbursement of Federal money, and the targeting of initiatives that theoretically help people, what is the harm to your privacy if you (and your neighbors) don't provide accurate information? Because sure enough, you'll be complaining about those situations in 10 years (or less) simply because of an unwarranted concern about privacy.
posted by kuppajava at 11:47 AM on March 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

You are required to fill out the form in its entirety and the government will try everything in its power to get you to answer those ten questions up to and including sending a census taker to your house.

Personally, I don't quite see where the huge privacy fears are coming from as many people put the same information (and often quite more) into the public sphere via Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, et cetera.
posted by jaybeans at 1:24 PM on March 18, 2010

The other thing is, and this applies to nearly everyone in the USA, if you were to send me your address (no need to do this, thanks) I could tell you your name and birthdate in about 2 minutes, just by searching publicly available databases like the US PRI. Anybody with access to a public library can do the same. All you end up doing is hurting your neighborhood in funding and political representation, all to indulge your paranoia.
posted by zvs at 1:46 PM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

miskatonic: "For example, people with ancestors of many different origins might object to being forced to pick one label, or might find the question nonsensical."

As the father of mixed-race kids, there's an easy solution to this: pick multiple labels. This is explicitly allowed on the form, as it must be in order to make any sense at all.
posted by lex mercatoria at 2:01 PM on March 18, 2010

being forced to pick one label

The instruction for the race section says "mark one or more".

Here's what is on the form (some of these have clarifying instructions, so they're just paraphrased here):

1. How many people were staying at this address April 1, 2010?
2. Were there any additional people staying here, who you didn't count in the previous question?
3. Is this house owned by you with a mortgage; owned by you free and clear; rented; occupied without paying rent?
4. What is your phone number?

For each person:
5. Full name
6. Sex (mark one of M or F)
7. Birthdate and age on Apr 1
8. Are you of Hispanic origin, and if so please specify Mexican, Spanish, Guatemalan, etc.
9. What is your race? (mark one or more)
10. Do you sometimes live or stay somewhere else? (if so please check box, eg nursing home, college, etc)

11. For people in addition to the first person on the form, what is your relationship to the first person on the form? (check one of spouse, child, etc)
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:57 PM on March 18, 2010

None of the things on the form are private information. Except maybe relationship status.

What possible gain for anyone is there in not filling out the form? It's not like some future government boogey man is going to be using census data to find its enemies.
posted by gjc at 6:28 PM on March 18, 2010

I've heard the U.S. Constitution only requires that I answer the first question

This is a popular myth, similar to things like tax protester logic (e.g. if the flag has a fringe the court is invalid). The Constitution, at least in this instance, makes no requirement of any citizen. It requires the government to do something. Congress has, in turn, made laws to implement what the government is required to do; the President signed them; and the courts have upheld them. They are as valid as any other law. The Constitution is, in fact, explicit that the census shall be conducted "in such Manner as they shall by Law direct". That's a pretty big mouthful to chomp on for a document designed, in the view of some, to create a limited government. It follows that the Founders' intent was broad and flexible.
posted by dhartung at 1:01 AM on March 19, 2010

This time round I happily filled out and returned the short form, but ten years ago I recieved the long form and found it intrusive and sinister, asking many questions I thought were none of the business of the federal government. First I recieved a duplicate form, then another vaguely threatening notice hand-delivered by a census worker, and that was the extent of it. No fine, and I never heard if my neighbors were approached.
posted by werkzeuger at 8:00 AM on March 19, 2010

« Older Unemployment benefits in Georgia while having a...   |   Time Vacuum (or Productivity Fail) Web Sites Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.