I’m fairly sure that I’ve never received the American Community Survey (ACS), which is sent out to roughly 2% of the population every year. It took the place of the “long form” census questionnaire which was used up until the 2010 counting and the GOP would like to see some changes made. For one thing, it’s really not the government’s business how many toilets you have in your house, is it?

Why does the government want to know how many toilets you have in your home?

It might seem like a silly question, but it is now central to a dispute between congressional Republicans and the Obama administration over the kinds of questions that the Census Bureau can ask in its mandatory surveys.
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In addition to the decennial census, the government’s head-counters every year send 3.5 million Americans a lengthy questionnaire seeking a wide range of information about their living situation and employment status. Known as the American Community Survey, it replaced the “long form” portion of the official census beginning a decade ago. In addition to questions about the number of toilets, since 2010 the ACS has also asked about what kind of plumbing people have in their homes, and about their Internet access, energy use, whether they receive food stamps, if they live over a store, and how many cars they drive.

The House GOP is trying to roll back some legislation which provides for up to $5K in fines (!) if you refuse to fill out these questions, basically making them voluntary. The Census Bureau argues that if it’s not mandatory, participation rates plummet. (That might tell you something right there.) But the real question here is why this is mandatory in the first place. I’ve seen some of the internet arguments about the census not being mandatory and variations on that theme, but the courts have disagreed on multiple occasions. Article I Section 2 simply says that an enumeration will be made every ten years “as directed” by Congress, so they have a lot of latitude on this as long as they’re counting heads.

But this ACS is something else. Sure… you can say that Congress has the authority to do it, but they would also have the authority to stop. Those are some fairly intrusive questions, but perhaps even more to the point, how much are they spending on this? And couldn’t they get Gallup or somebody to do it on a voluntary basis? Polls aren’t cheap – I’ve commissioned a few for campaigns myself – but I feel fairly confident in saying that the major, private polling companies could still do it better and cheaper than the government.

To be fair, I’m sure there are uses for some of this data in terms of managing federal programs, but wouldn’t the state governments have a better handle on the concerns and needs of their citizens and be in a position to feed that data up to Washington? Making the survey voluntary is a good first step, but why stop there? No matter how much money we’re talking about, Uncle Sam needs to be watching every penny these days. It seems like there has to be a better way.