Have you received an American Community Survey in the mail?

If its delivery has come your way and you’re confused (like some of those who have emailed us) here’s what we found out about it when we went digging.

The New York Daily News calls the ACS “a treasure trove used by governments, retailers and planners” that’s “packed with numbers on everything from the jobs we have to the transportation we take to work.” Its 2012 numbers have been released and news outlets across the United States are reporting on its findings, typically in regard to local economies.

Are You Receiving the Governments American Community Survey That Asks You to Disclose Rather Personal Information?

(Credit: U.S. Census Bureau via YouTube)

Here’s a map of U.S. median household income, based on 2012 ACS findings:

Are You Receiving the Governments American Community Survey That Asks You to Disclose Rather Personal Information?

(Image source: 2012 ACS/Texas Tribune)

An offshoot of the U.S. Census form, it debuted in 2005 and is sent to about 250,000 addresses on an ongoing monthly basis — as opposed to once per decade — as a remedy for reaching U.S. citizens who’ve been ignoring the regular census “long form” in growing numbers in recent years.

And you’re legally required to fill out the 28-page ACS and can be fined up to $5,000 if you don’t. The result of that penalty threat? A 97% response rate, according to the Orange County Register.

The information it gets back “helps state and local leaders make decisions about programs and investments such as new highways, schools, hospitals, job training, community centers and emergency services,” according to a census bureau public affairs specialist who spoke to the Register.

But what’s also made headlines are many complaints that the ACS is way too intrusive and some of the personal information it requests is not the federal government’s business. To wit:

As well as questions asking if you have health insurance, what means of energy is used for heating your residence, if you use the Internet, how many bedrooms are in your residence, and how many vehicles you use.

The ACS insists, however, that you needn’t worry about disclosing the information it asks of you: “Participating in the American Community Survey is safe. All Census Bureau employees take an oath of nondisclosure and are sworn for life to protect the confidentiality of the data. Violating the oath is a serious crime. The penalty for unlawful disclosure is a fine of up to $250,000 or imprisonment of up to 5 years, or both.”

In addition to voices out there saying it’s an Orwellian tool of Washington, D.C., there are numerous people defending it, including one who may surprise you.

Conservative columnist George Will recently offered his take on the ACS and notes that its information gathering should not become “collateral damage” of the legitimate distrust of “the politicized IRS, with its mountains of sensitive information” and the “National Security Agency’s collection of metadata” which has “deepened Americans’ instinctive suspicion of government.”

Will adds that the information the ACS gets “improves the efficiency of markets — and of governments, too”:

If the survey were voluntary, compliance would plummet and the cost of gathering the information would soar. The data, paid for by taxpayers and available to them at no charge, serves what the nation needs most — economic growth. Target, Wal-Mart and other large retailers tailor their inventories to regional, even neighborhood differences revealed in the ACS’ granular data. Homebuilders locate markets rich in persons 25 to 34, and renters.

So…have you received an American Community Survey? If so, did the questions concern you? Did you fill it out and turn it in? Or did you ignore and hope for the best?

Here’s a humorous perspective from one U.S. citizen who received an ACS…and what his response plans are:

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