A little-known household survey distributed by the federal government as part of its Decennial Census Program has riled some Asheville residents with its probing questions.
The big census count conducted every 10 years, with the next coming in 2010, aims to collect data on all U.S. households. The short-form version that most people receive includes seven questions, takes about 10 minutes to complete and is used by the government primarily to determine how many representatives in the U.S. Congress each state receives. There’s a long-form version that fewer people receive and takes about 40 minutes to fill out.
In an attempt to collect more current information, the government in 1996 started sending that long-form survey to a small number of Americans every year. It’s called the American Community Survey, and about three million people receive it. About 1,400 people in Buncombe County received the survey in 2006, the latest year for which numbers are available, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In Asheville, the probing questions on that survey have rubbed some people the wrong way.
“By filling this out, we’re just opening ourselves up to the government getting into our homes, telling us how to raise our kids, how to spend our money, what kinds of foods to eat,” said Carl Gittings of Asheville, who received the questionnaire last month. “It’s just a scary thing. I think people should just throw it in the trash.”
The survey asks for the name, age, race, date of birth and ethnicity of every person living in the home. It contains questions about the home (“Which FUEL is used MOST for heating this house, apartment, or mobile home?” “How much is the regular monthly mortgage payment on THIS property?”) There are also detailed personal questions about education, work, income and health (“Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition, does this person have serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions?” “How many times has this person been married?”)
Gittings said he sees the questionnaire as just another form of government intrusion. “I just think that over the past couple of years, our government is wanting into more and more facets of our lives where they have absolutely no business.”
Gittings’ wife, Lisa Marie Gittings, said she was put off by a statement on the questionnaire’s cover that “says your response is required by law.” Paging through the document, she saw that “they wanted full names and birth dates and that was really intrusive, I thought, because I thought the point of the census was to be anonymous,” she said. Gittings started a blog to chronicle what she considers harassment by government agencies, including the U.S. Census Bureau.
For its part, the government stresses that it protects the privacy of the information collected and doesn’t share the specific answers with police or other regulatory agencies. “We do make confidentiality our highest priority. Everybody at the Census Bureau is sworn by law to protect that information,” spokeswoman Shelly Lowe said.
The information that’s gathered is critical because it helps determine how approximately $300 billion in federal and state funding is dispersed, Lowe said. For example, answers to questions about income and housing are summarized and used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to assess the need for housing assistance for elderly, handicapped and low-income residents. Local governments and transportation experts use information for planning programs and making decisions on road-building projects.
“It may seem like an interesting assortment of questions, but they’re all tied to programs,” Lowe said.
Are residents required by law to fill out the survey? That’s true, according to Lowe, who said census workers will follow up with a small number of people with mailings, a phone call and a personal visit in an attempt to encourage people to fill out the forms. “But the real priority is not tracking down people. We really work hard to educate people as to why it’s important for them to respond.” Lowe said the Census Bureau has about a 97 percent response rate to the American Community Survey.
Lisa Marie Gittings says she’s not planning to fill out the survey, “but that may change depending on how many times they come to my door.”
Go to the Xpress Files and click here to download a PDF of the American Community Survey.
— Jason Sandford, multimedia editor