Do you have a bathtub or a shower? Do you have a sink with a faucet?
More importantly, do you find such questions intrusive, when they’re coming from the government and must be answered under the threat of a fine?
Those are typical questions from the American Community Survey, a project of the U.S. Census Bureau that helps bureaucrats “tailor” federal programs.
Each year, 250,000 such surveys are mailed to American homes. If you go to the Census Bureau’s website, you learn you have no choice but to answer it in full.
“Do I have to answer both the American Community Survey and the 2010 Census?” the website’s FAQ section says. “Yes. Your response to both is important and required by law.”
Now, however, two Republican congressmen, Rand Paul, of Kentucky, and Ted Poe, of Texas, have introduced a bill that would make answering those questions voluntary.
Another member of Congress, Florida’s Daniel Webster, is seeking to eliminate the survey altogether.
“Failure to comply with this survey and turn over this personal information is punishable by up to a $5,000 fine,” Webster said last week. “Given the intrusive nature of some of these questions, which are mandatory for Americans to answer under penalty of law, it would seem that these questions hardly fit the scope of what was intended or required by the Constitution.”
Introducing his bill on the floor of the House, Webster said the survey “tramples on personal privacy.”
The survey does have its defenders, including Bloomberg Businessweek.
“The ACS — which has a long bipartisan history, including its funding in the mid-1990s and full implementation in 2005 — provides data that help determine how more than $400 billion in federal and state funds are spent annually,” Michael Phillips wrote for that publication recently. “Businesses also rely heavily on it to do such things as decide where to build new stores, hire new employees, and get valuable insights on consumer spending habits.”
“If you have committed yourself to claims that can be disproved with data, like ‘inflation is high,’ then good economic data do not serve your interests,” he wrote.
But an increasing number of Republican lawmakers disagree.
“You need to know how many people of voting age are in a household,” Congressman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina said on the House floor. “You need to know race so you can comport with constitutional provisions. You may very well need to know the gender of the people in the home so you can comport with constitutional provisions. But you don’t need to know anything beyond that.”
He’s right; those business interests that depend on the data can darn well gather it on their own. Taxpayers don’t owe the U.S. Chamber of Commerce free marketing studies.
The real issue is privacy. There’s no compelling interest for the government to ask such intrusive questions. At the very least, participation shouldn’t be mandatory.