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Is Big Brother watching? Federal census questions leave some wondering

Feb. 27, 2013

Questions on a survey conducted by the US Census Bureau have some residents concerned about privacy and harassment by census employees.

"I felt a bit creeped out," Lawrence Seybold, a Brookfield business owner said after reading questions on the American Community Survey.

A monthly survey randomly sent to 3 million people nationwide annually, the American Community Survey is meant to replace the traditional Decennial Survey the Census Bureau conducts.

It contains questions about income and education, but also more detailed questions about marriage, fertility, where you live and how much you pay for essentials on an annual basis.

"Information from the survey generates data that help determine how more than $400 billion in federal and state funds are distributed each year," the U.S. Census Bureau said on its website.

Some of the questions, however, crossed the line, Seybold said.

"They have a question that asks what time my spouse leaves the house every morning," Seybold said. "Why do they need to know that?"

Seybold isn't alone in his thoughts.

Shelly Fackler, a Lake Country resident, said she had completed U.S. Census Bureau surveys in the past, but the questions on this one shocked her.

"It was like nothing I had ever seen before," Fackler said. "They wanted to know how many cars we had, what we use in our home, and I felt this wasn't necessary."

Fackler said she threw the survey away, only to receive a second one two weeks later.

"It said it was punishable by law if we didn't do it. I felt very threatened by the wording," she said.

Recipients are legally obligated to comply with the survey, or face a fine of up to $5,000.

"Just as people are required to respond to jury duty, get a driver's license in order to drive, pay their taxes and report their income, they also have the obligation to respond to decennial census surveys," the website said.

An U.S. Census Bureau official said all questions are reviewed before the survey is released.

"All questions undergo vigorous review by Congressional committees," Stephen Laue, information service specialist for the Chicago Regional Office of the U.S. Census Bureau said.

Survey benefits, privacy concerns

Laue said the newer, rotating survey has what some may perceive to be invasive questions, but has several benefits.

"This survey allows local communities to receive updated information, instead of having to wait every 10 years, for planning social services, transportation, senior services, housing and education," he said.

Information on income, for example, is required for use by the Social Security Act, the National School Lunch Program, the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, and the U.S. Department of Education for grant allocation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau website.

The survey has a 95 percent response rate, Laue said, and the information provided is protected under strict guidelines.

By law, the Census Bureau cannot share individual respondents' answers with anyone - not the IRS, not the FBI, not the CIA, and not with any other government agency.

Uncomfortable home visits

Invasive questions aren't the only things about the survey that alarmed Fackler.

"This man showed up at my house, parked in my driveway and came on my porch with a laptop and asked to come in," Fackler said. "He told me, 'You need to do this,' and tried to argue with me, and I just closed the door on him."

The field representative called again a week later, Fackler said, and told her husband that he was not going to go away, and to "just answer the questions the best way he could," even on those he was not sure of the answers to.

"It was extremely invasive and freaked me out," Fackler said. "He wanted answers no matter what they would be."

Seybold said he too received a home visit this summer.

"It was a bit uncomfortable," he said. "The woman was actually very nice. I just wasn't able to answer a lot of the questions off of the top of my head, such as questions about dividends, utility bills, things like that."

Laue said home visits are the last option.

"We do a mailing in the first month, and then we try a telephone call," Laue said. "We use a sample of addresses, so we don't know if the address is vacant. If we are unsuccessful with mailings and telephone calls, we will attempt a home visit to complete the interview."

The mandatory nature of the survey is a factor in intense attempts to contact survey recipients, but field representatives should never be rude or threatening toward participants, Laue said.

"We would never condone or encourage rudeness," Laue said. "If respondents have any thoughts about the attitude of the field representative, they should certainly ask for a supervisor's number."

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