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Lawmakers say answering Census survey should be voluntary

Brian Bowling
| Sunday, July 27, 2014, 10:40 p.m.

With little fanfare, Congress is debating whether a Census Bureau program is worth the aggravation it causes some constituents.

That debate resulted in two House votes — one in 2012 to pass a bill that would end the American Community Survey and one this year to amend an appropriations bill to make participation in that survey voluntary.

The survey reaches about 3.5 million households annually, asking about occupations, wages, disabilities, veteran status and more.

Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, voted to kill the survey in 2012 and supports making it voluntary. He considers it “highly intrusive” and said it goes far beyond a constitutional mandate that requires a population count every 10 years to establish congressional districts.

“I fundamentally object to compelling individuals to divulge personal information on lifestyle and details of the home,” he said.

Kimberly Hayes of Sapulpa, Okla., one of a number of people nationwide complaining about the survey, told the Tribune-Review she started filling out the survey online after getting a postcard from the Census Bureau in the mail. But as the questions became more intrusive, she quit and deleted her answers.

What followed was a three-month ordeal. Census Bureau officials called her 20 to 25 times, sent her seven mailings and, she said, dispatched a worker who walked around her house looking into windows and knocking on her back door.

“Multiple times I was told I would be fined,” she said.

Ultimately, the Census Bureau quit asking her to respond.

The Senate killed the first proposal to eliminate the survey and hasn't taken up a second. House votes generally followed party lines: Republicans favored changing or eliminating the survey and Democrats opposed changes. With Democrats holding a 53-45 majority in the Senate, the proposal faces an uphill battle.

Phil Sparks of The Census Project, a coalition of government, professional and business groups pressing to preserve the survey, said the appropriations bill containing the amendment has been held up for other reasons and is likely to come up for a vote in September.

Making the survey voluntary would reduce its accuracy to the point that it would be impossible to collect reliable demographics data for municipalities and other places with 20,000 people or fewer, Sparks said.

“It's unclear what would then happen to those small communities, in terms of federal aid,” he said.

In 2008, 184 federal assistance programs used the survey's results to distribute about $416 billion, according to a Brookings Institution study. That represents about one-third of all federal assistance and includes about two-thirds of the money distributed by grants, such as those for housing and economic development.

“If you're running the most important government in the world, you need to have some idea of the circumstances the people are conducting their lives under,” said Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Philadelphia.

In addition to the government, businesses use the survey to identify and analyze markets, pick business locations and guide capital investments, the study said. Nonprofit organizations such as hospitals and community service organizations use it to identify service areas.

States and local governments use it to plan for transportation, water and sewer and other infrastructure needs.

As the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Census Bureau, Fattah argued in May against an amendment by Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, that would make participation in the survey voluntary.

Poe didn't return calls seeking comment. During floor debate, he said government can obtain the information it needs without threatening to fine people.

The law allows the Census Bureau to impose a $500 civil fine against someone who refuses to answer the questions. It allows federal prosecutors to bring a criminal action that could lead to a $5,000 fine.

Yet no one has been fined or prosecuted, Fattah said.

About 97 percent of people answer the survey. When Canada made a similar survey voluntary, its response rate dropped to about 60 percent, Fattah said.

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, voted against the 2012 bill and opposes the amendment.

“Without the statistics collected by the (survey), decisions in both the private and public sector would be less efficient and more wasteful,” he said.

Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, supports making the survey voluntary. Before he ran for office, he received one in the mail.

“I thought it was overbearing,” he said.

More recently, he said, a constituent complained about being forced to answer the survey.

The Internet helped coalesce opposition to the survey and its predecessor, the long-form census questionnaire, but the opposition has been around for decades, said Sparks of The Census Project.

Working as a part-time census taker more than 30 years ago, Sparks ran into opposition to questions firsthand, in the form of the husband of his former high school science teacher.

“I knew the guy,” he said. “Not only did he not want to fill out the form, he took a swing at me.”

Brian Bowling is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He canbe reached at 412-325-4301 or

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