The U.S. Census Bureau is reporting widespread distrust of the federal government, a factor that is making it difficult for Census to conduct surveys on the social and economic status of millions of Americans.
Census revealed that finding in a slideshow presentation this week about the American Community Survey. While the bureau is known for its decennial census, it also administers the ACS each year to millions of American households.
But in a slideshow presentation this week, Tasha Boone of the ACS office noted that one hurdle to implementing the annual survey is a huge distrust of the federal government. "Distrust of government is pervasive," she wrote in her presentation.
A related problem, she said, are the privacy concerns being raised by the perception that some of the ACS questions are "irrelevant or unnecessary." House Republicans have raised this issue for the last few years, noting that the ACS asks several very personal questions that some believe is none of the government's business.
For example, the ACS asks if people "have difficulty dressing or bathing," and asks how well people speak English. Under a section called "fertility," the ACS asks whether the survey respondent has given birth to any children in the last 12 months. "What was this person's total income during the past 12 months?" it asks.
The federal government has said demographic data drawn from the survey, including data on age, race, income, education, and health insurance status, helps the government decide how to divide federal funds across the country. But Republicans have said the survey's questions are too intrusive, and that at a minimum the questions asked in the ACS should be narrowed down.
One way Census is trying to get around the broad distrust of government is to find new ways to package the annual survey. Boone's slideshow said Census has tested out three different mailing envelopes — one of them is labeled "official," and notes in large type that "your response is required by law."
Another known as a community-themed envelope tries a softer approach. It encourages recipients to "respond today," and shows silhouettes of kids and families.
The last is a patriotic-themed envelope, which has an American flag design but still warns people that "your response is required by law."
Boone's presentation indicates that the "official" envelope is likely best. In a section on key findings from the study, she emphasizes "stick above carrot."
The mandatory nature of the survey is something that has bothered both Republicans and Democrats. Under current law, people who fail to fill out the ACS can be fined as much as $5,000, although that fine is rarely imposed.
"You are legally obligated to answer all the questions, as accurately as you can," Census warns on its website. [P]ersons who do not respond shall be fined not more than $100," it added.
However, it noted that another section of the law changes the fine for anyone who refuses to complete the survey to "not more than $5,000.