Wait, What’s Your Problem: the Census does or does not require people to participate?

Sunday’s What’s Your Problem? column in the Chicago Tribune featured a woman irritated by some Census workers who did sound like creepers. Yet, a Census employee is still unclear about whether U.S. residents have to participate in Census surveys:

He said census interviewers are trained to be professional, courteous, and to never use the possibility of a fine to coerce people into participating.

Olson said the American Community Survey is mandatory and there is a potential fine for people who fail to participate, but the Census Bureau relies on public cooperation to encourage responses.

The survey is important because its data guide nearly 70 percent of federal grants, Olson said.

This is a common response from the Census but it is still vague. Is participating in the Census and the American Community Survey mandatory or not? Is there a fine for participation or not? The answer seems to be yes and yes – mandatory, a fine is possible, and yet no has to really worry about incurring a penalty.

Typical social science research, which is akin to what the Census Bureau is doing (and the organization has been led by sociologists), has several basic rules regarding ethics in collecting information from people. Don’t harm people. (See the above story about peeking in people’s windows.) And participation has to be voluntary. This can include contacting people multiple times. So is participation really voluntary if there is even the implicit idea of a fine? This is where it is less like social science research and more like government action, which is a fine line the Census is walking here. Clearing this up might help improve relations with people who are suspicious of why the Census wants basic information about their lives.


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