Why Are Some Census Surveys Mandatory?

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Written by: Director Robert Groves

In an earlier post, I commented on the mandatory nature of some of the Census Bureau surveys.  Congress has directed over time that some surveys and censuses produce such important information to the country that law mandates participation. These include a few of the surveys producing key economic indicators, the decennial census, and the American Community Survey.  Most of the surveys we conduct aren’t mandatory, just the most important ones.

Fines are authorized upon prosecution of failure to participation or deliberate false reports.  Historically, the Census Bureau has rarely prosecuted violation of those laws.

Why?

We have come to believe over time that the most important attribute of the laws is that they communicate the importance of the survey or census to the country.  For example, it is increasingly common that we are receiving scores of requests weekly to do something – return a postcard to get a discount, act now to save on car repairs, complete a customer profile to get a credit card offer, etc.. Our requests for surveys and censuses arrive at households and businesses mixed together with junk and spam mail, bills, advertising, and other items competing for our time and attention.

We have found that plain envelopes sent to households from the Census Bureau are often tossed in the trash.  However, through past research we know that when we see on an envelope or an internet message that our participation is required by law, we pay more attention.  Its attention-grabbing value is that it is rarely used.  When these envelopes are opened, householders see the request and why it is important that they participate.  When people understand why they should take a few minutes and complete the questionnaire or interview, the vast majority of Americans freely give the information requested.  Over 97% of the American Community Survey households complete the survey!   If we dropped the mandatory nature, we would spend much more taxpayer money following up those who do not immediately respond.  The savings to the taxpayer come directly from the mandatory nature of the survey. The statistics produced from it are invaluable because they are the country’s only source of small area estimates on social and demographic characteristics.

Census surveys that are mandated by Congress are deemed important enough to the national interest to require an individual’s participation.  Like other civic obligations such as registering for the selective service or reporting for jury duty, the imposition on the individual is considered necessary to achieve a broader goal.  The country needs a ready pool of potential draftees in time or war, or in the case of the Census, helping communities large and small know where we are headed economically and demographically.  In America, these penalties are rarely required because we are a society that overwhelmingly honors our civic duties.

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