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U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey: A Detailed Portrait of America’s People and Places



hroughout the year and across the United States, randomly selected households are receiving an official U.S. Census Bureau survey form. But since it is not a census year, many people are certain that the questionnaire is yet another scam sweeping the community. The fear rises when a Census Bureau representative calls or shows up at the door asking a lot of questions.

Yes, the Census Bureau conducts a full enumeration of the population once every 10 years—just as the U.S. Constitution requires. However, a survey occurs every month throughout the decade that asks a range of questions about population and housing throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. Known as the American Community Survey (and its companion, the Puerto Rico Community Survey), it is the largest U.S. household survey. It is sent to street addresses rather than specific individuals and includes group living situations—such as military barracks, college dormitories, nursing homes, and prisons—as well as individual homes. Just like the 10-year census, responding to the survey is required by law.

Because the American Community Survey is an address-based survey, the Census Bureau does not send informational materials or the actual survey form to post office boxes. A recently implemented online option provides another convenient and secure alternative for households to respond. Residents in some U.S. rural communities, Puerto Rico, and group homes are not able to participate online at this time.

Despite its nearly decade-long existence as a replacement for the previous “long form” questionnaire that went to a sample of addresses in previous censuses, the American Community Survey remains for some a cause for concern and skepticism. The Internet option, for instance, has heightened both awareness and, in some instances, fears. The Census Bureau is committed to ensuring that law enforcement officials and the communities they serve are aware of why the survey is being conducted; how the statistics are used; what the procedures are for conducting the survey; and, most important, how the information residents provide is kept safe and confidential.

The survey is sent to more than 3.5 million housing unit addresses on a rotating basis throughout the year. The information that the Census Bureau collects helps state and local leaders make decisions about programs and investments, such as new highways, schools, hospitals, job training, community centers, and emergency services. The American Community Survey not only provides the most detailed statistical portrait of America’s people and places, but also remains a legitimate, updated version of information that was collected during the first U.S. census in 1790.

It is true that Title 13 authorizes fines upon prosecution of failure to participate or deliberate false reports. While the fine for not completing the survey is not more than $5,000, participation should be encouraged rather than emphasizing the fine.

Census Bureau employees take an oath for life to protect the information respondents provide and are subject to imprisonment and up to a $250,000 fine if they violate that oath.

Residents selected to participate receive a letter in the mail, which includes information on how to answer the survey online. The Census Bureau’s standard follow-up procedures for residents who choose not to answer online or by mail include telephone calls and personal visits from field representatives.

The Census Bureau’s website (www.census.gov/acs) houses several resources to assist with answering questions about the American Community Survey:

  • Fact sheets explain the history of each question and why the question is asked.

  • Frequently asked questions are presented as well as their answers.

  • A handbook for state and local officials to explain survey details and access the resulting statistics is available.

  • Sample copies of all of the pre-notices, follow-up materials, and the full questionnaire are presented.

  • Videos on how to respond online and how survey statistics are used can be accessed.

In addition, anyone may contact the Census Bureau and ask questions or submit them in writing.


Customer Services Center: 1-800-923-8282 acso.communications.list@census.gov

The Census Bureau also maintains six regional offices:

Atlanta: 1-800-424-6974 (serving Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina

Chicago: 1-800-865-6384 (serving Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin)

Denver: 1-800-852-6159 (serving Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming)

Los Angeles: 1-800-992-3530 (serving Alaska, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington)

New York: 1-800-991-2520 (serving Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Puerto Rico)

Philadelphia: 1-800-262-4236 (serving Delaware, District of Columbia, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia)

For more information about the American Community Survey or other U.S. Census Bureau operations, contact the agency’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs at 301-763-6100.  ♦

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 8, August 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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