I recently had an interesting experience regarding a not so widely publicized program administered by the United States Census Bureau called The American Community Survey. I thought others might be interested, minimally educated, perhaps marginally entertained, in some way slightly amused or even mildly outraged by the recant of my recent experience so I put pen to paper and recreated the tale. The story you are about to read is true. Some of the names are fictional but otherwise it is an accurate account. I had to write it because… you just can’t make this stuff up!
I found myself relaxing at my seasonal mountain cabin in a small summer resort community My wife and I had stayed past the normal season end to enjoy the glorious fall colors and a few days of brisk mountain weather before closing down for the season. It was Sunday morning and I was enjoying my weekly NFL “worship service” when my peaceful meditation was interrupted by a loud knock on the door. Begrudgingly, I pulled myself up from my comfortable Sunday morning quarterback pew and went to the door. There on my deck I saw what appeared to be a homeless person. He reminded me very much of the poor soul who stands at the interstate off-ramp that I pass each week on my way to the grocery store in town. You’ve probably seen similar people in your community. This fellow holds a handwritten cardboard sign that reads “stranded, need help.” He’s had that particular spot staked out for the past two or three years (now that’s what I call REALLY stranded). Anyway, how he (or his similar likeness) got on my front porch I haven’t a clue, but as I opened the door I reached for my wallet to give the guy a few bucks so he would leave and allow me to return to my “NFL Sunday School lesson.”
By the way for those football fans among you who may be wondering, the lesson that morning was the NFL version of David & Goliath, the Patriots & Brady vs. the Redskins & Cousins. But in this variation of the story the big, bad giant will win and that’s OK because I picked the giant in my football pool and I needed the score differential to be as large as possible to help my standing in the pool. Therefore, I was anxious to get back to “church” to see how this one played out.
But before I could reach my wallet the “homeless guy” identified himself as a field representative for the U.S. Department of Commerce, U. S. Census Bureau and handed me a business card (telephone number handwritten on the front). He also handed me a dog-eared, glossy tri-fold brochure titled “American Community Survey” and a very official looking summons hand-addressed in a fill-in-the-blank format to my street address. It was directed to the “current resident.” I hesitantly took the information and began to scan it. The summons told me that my residence (not me personally) had been randomly selected to participate in the American Community Survey and since I had missed the mail-in deadline to respond to the questionnaire (which the summons indicated that “I may or may not have received by mail”) I am now obligated to complete the survey via “personal interview.” The homeless guy (I mean Census Bureau field representative) explained to me that this is a survey conducted by the U. S. Census Bureau in non-census years. According to the brochure that I was still scanning, “the survey collects economic, social, demographic and housing information in order to help the government make informed decisions about the country’s communities.”
So, now understanding the nature of the interruption and having already missed a touchdown and ten penalty calls (which is about the ratio of TD’s to Penal T’s this season) I informed him politely that I was not really interested in providing information for the survey, “thanks anyway, but you have a nice day, bye-bye now.” Au contraire! Mr. Field Representative quickly informed me that participation is MANDATORY and that I was required by law (Title 13, Sections 141, 193 and 221) to respond. He added with a smug smile that can only be delivered effectively by a civil servant that “there are “penalties for failing to respond and for responding falsely”. “Oh, really!” I asked “What are the penalties?” He declined to say, indicating that this was not his area of expertise. However, he volunteered “If this is a seasonal residence, the long form can be bypassed and the interview will only take a few minutes.” By this time, I was in no mood to be interviewed by anyone, especially not by someone who looked like a homeless person, but claimed to be a representative of the Federal Government…hmm, now that I put it that way it does sound a little more believable.
By now I had come to the reality that my relaxing Sunday morning had been shattered and I realized the longer I stayed at the door discussing this survey with the homeless guy look-alike Census Field Representative the more rewinding I would have to do to catch up on my NFL Sunday School lesson to see first-hand how bad Goliath had pounded David. So, as tactfully as possible I told the guy that I had never heard of this survey and I would need some time to check it out (including him). He said OK, left his propaganda package and contact information and assured me that if I did not contact him in a day or two, “I’ll be back!” (somewhat reminiscent of the Schwarzenegger line from “The Terminator” movie, right?).
So I closed the door, threw the brochure, summons, business card, etc. on the table, and returned to the “Church of the NFL” with no real intention of burning any additional energy, time or effort on this government survey thing. Besides, in my humble, distorted and probably politically incorrect opinion, the government already has all the information they need about me. I file and pay my outrageous taxes on time every year. I have voted in every eligible election since I came of voting age and I obey all the laws (OK, so I may run a couple of miles per hour over the speed limit sometimes, but that is in self-defense to prevent the idiots on the interstate from running over me). But I digress. The point is that I planned to leave the stuff on the table at my vacation home and head back down the mountain mid-week to bask in the sunshine and warmer temperatures. So Mr. Field Representative will just have to hunt me down if he wants to interview me. After all, it said right there on the summons it’s my house that was randomly selected, not me personally…right? Let him speak with the house.
Now, I must explain. You see I imagine these guys as sort of bounty hunters. They probably get paid or graded by the completed form (i.e. interview). This fellow probably drives around the resort community looking for cars in the driveways (this time of year there aren’t that many). When he finds one, he fills in the blanks on his summons form with the house address in his best “serial-killer-like” script, puts it in an envelope with the dogged-eared brochure and his handwritten business card, knocks on the door and “Voila”, he has a live one on the line to turn in to his bureaucrat boss so he can collect his “bounty.” Yeah, sure your address was randomly selected to participate (by him, because your car was in the driveway). Yeah, sure you were sent a questionnaire in the mail (or maybe not) but never mind because you missed the mail-in deadline anyway so now you will have to submit to a personal interview. And by the way, this is mandatory or else the full power and force of the Federal Government will be brought to bear and the consequences will be dire!
So anyway, I figured my wife and I would pack up and leave mid-week. This guy would likely come back, see that we had shut down the cabin, assume we had left for the season, write this one off and move on to his next victim.
WRONG! Fast-forward to the following Wednesday. As we were loading and preparing to leave for home a UPS truck pulled up in front of the cabin and the driver delivered a UPS document package. I asked my wife if she ordered something and she said no. She jokingly chirped “it’s probably from the Census Bureau, they’re coming to get you.” I zipped the folder open and OMG! Guess what? It was from the U.S. Census Bureau! Inside was a cover letter and deluxe brochure (no dog-ears on this one) from the Regional Director, let’s call him Mr. N. Tim Adator (name changed to protect the guilty). The cover letter was addressed to me and stated that he was aware that I had been recently contacted by a U. S. Census Field Representative, let’s call him Mr. Boone T. Hunter (name changed to protect the guilty). The letter went on to state that the Census Bureau was conducting this survey under authority provided in Title 13, Sections yada yada and that my response was required by law. It also stated that “you will be contacted again in a few days” or alternately, you can give up now and surrender to Agent Boone T. Hunter voluntarily who will conduct an interview to obtain the information we want (the alternative is my paraphrased interpretation, of course). The letter concluded with the assurance that all information provided would be held in the utmost confidentiality and that the information would be used only to decide the location of new schools, fire stations and hospitals, in addition to “helping the government make decisions about health care, education, emergency and transportation services that will affect you and your neighbors.” Now maybe it’s just me, but like many other citizens these days I am of the opinion that perhaps the government has made enough decisions affecting me and my neighbors already! But again, I digress.
So, wow! I guess this must really be important stuff since a Regional Director of the United States Census Bureau has taken the time to single me out of the crowd with a personal letter, special delivery via UPS! The government really must need my input desperately and I suppose I will be doing a tremendous service to this small resort community by responding. People will be stopping me at the post office and in the country club next season to shake my hand and thank me for contributing to the betterment of community. The volunteer firemen will bring the fire engine over to my house and give me a 3 blast salute on the siren. The Volunteer Deputy Sherriff will stop by to salute me. The Sanitation District workers will give 3… well anyway, you get the drift. This is obviously very critical information and it is my civic duty to contribute. I now feel privileged and proud to do my part for this community. OK, not so much but I need to move this story forward while we are still relatively young.
By the way, if you have become bored reading this diatribe, I am so sorry! Unfortunately, you’re hooked. You need to find out if I am writing this from jail or if by some miracle I escaped the wrath of the all-powerful United States Commerce Department/Census Bureau, so read on.
OK, let’s say they now had my attention. I went on the internet to do some research on this subject. I found that the American Community Survey has only been fully implemented in the past 10 years. Several Senators and Congressmen have challenged the authority of the Commerce Department to collect this information under Title 13 outside of the normal 10 year census cycle, but they have not been successful in mustering support to fight the bureaucracy so the Census Bureau has continued to propagate and grow their bureaucracy. More government sprawl and overreach…who would have ever thought it!
As for the dire consequences of refusing to participate or providing false information, I found that the code quoted does allow for a $100 fine for refusing to participate in the survey. If you falsify information you can be fined $500. But here’s an interesting tidbit that my research unearthed. Several former Secretaries of Commerce have stated for the record that the Department of Commerce is not an enforcement agency. Therefore, any infraction would have to be turned over to the Department of Justice for prosecution which the Commerce Department has openly stated would not be a remedy they would pursue in these cases. So realistically the threat of government reprisal is pretty much a “toothless dog.” They can be irritating, but they don’t really have the ability to hurt you.
Given all of this “much ado about nothing” scenario, I finally decided it would be less trouble to call Mr. Homeless Boone T. Hunter and see how much of the questionnaire I would be comfortable answering. After a couple of rounds of phone tag, we connected. I started by telling him that I was not really happy about the time I had already invested in this little project and that my research indicated that I really wouldn’t be prosecuted for not participating, but be that as it may…OK, go ahead, fire away. He proceeded to thank me for my “cooperation” and then said, “From our first meeting I believe you indicated this is seasonal residence.” I responded affirmatively and he went on to reiterate that since it is a seasonal residence, the survey would be limited only to questions about the residence itself. OK fine, shoot! I am ready to do my civic duty and provide all the critical information I possess for the betterment of my community! I am ready to open the kimono, “take one for the Gipper” or whatever it takes.
Here’s the interview:
Question 1: In which decade was this residence built?
ANS: The 70’s, 1974 to be specific.
Note to self: This information is public record and available on just about any real estate internet site from past listings and from current county records. Surely, that was just a warm-up question to see if I was going to tell the truth. The real important stuff must be yet to come. OK, I’m ready…hit me with the good stuff!
Question 2a: How many rooms does the residence have, not including bathrooms or rooms that are not separated by walls?
ANS: Well let me see, since this is an A-frame structure with an open loft, there are several rooms that are open to other rooms and are not walled-in per se, i.e. kitchen, dining area, great room, bonus room, loft, all open. Given all that open area and excluding bathrooms, I guess only two??
Note to self: But how is this question relevant to decisions regarding education, emergency services, healthcare, etc.? Wait, let me guess. If there are fewer walls to run into, then there is less possibility of accidental injury, therefore fewer emergency services are required, therefore less healthcare is required? Oh, that all makes perfect sense. NOT!
Question 2b: How many of these rooms are bedrooms?
Note to self: This is scary! What is the purpose of knowing how many are bedrooms? I can tell you for certain I don’t want the government in MY bedroom! I already get too much “love” from the government, I don’t need any more. The important questions that will help the government make critical decisions about the community must start with the next question, right?
Question 3: Does the residence have basic utility services: Electricity, running water, sewer, etc. ANS. Yes.
Note to self: If you look closely, you can see the water meter out front, the hose bib on the side of the house, the electric wires strung to the house and the electric meter and the circuit breaker boxes on the exterior wall. Was I not attending the Church of the NFL on my TV when agent Homeless-Boone T. Hunter interrupted me last Sunday? Do not utility service companies maintain records that show which properties are connected to their services and aren’t those records public information?
Interviewer: That completes the American Community Survey for this residence. Thank you for your participation.
C’mon man! Are you kidding me? You chased me down relentlessly for 4 days, had Mr. N. Tim Adator (Regional Director) send a threatening letter, wasted our tax money (your paycheck, travel expenses, per diem, “bounty,” UPS fee for special delivery letter, who knows what else) to obtain information about my property that is available and easily obtainable from multiple public sources? Seriously? What about the collection of important information that impacts educational needs, emergency services, healthcare, public transportation etc.? How does knowing how many bedrooms there are in the house help the government make important decisions about new schools, fire stations, public transit and other services critical to our community? Wait, I don’t want to know. C’mon man!
The moral of the story:
Beware of homeless looking government representatives bearing dog-eared brochures, handwritten business cards and hand-addressed fill-in-the-blank summons. They will wreak havoc on your peaceful Sunday mornings, threaten to “gum” you to death for days while they waste your tax money by racking up all manner of frivolous expenses with the stated objective of obtaining worthless information which, if it really had any value could be obtained in less than an hour of research on the internet. And worst of all, this is all done under the guise of “helping the government make decisions about health care, education, emergency and transportation services that will affect you and your neighbors” when In reality it is all about bureaucratic waste, expansion and overreach. Is it any wonder the nation is $19 trillion in debt?
Mercifully we have come to the end of this “rambling rant.” Not only because that is the end of this asinine story, but also because the whole episode has left me nearly speechless (OK, that’s not possible)! Writing it was a bit of a therapeutic exercise to help me gain closure from this inane experience. Anyway, if you have managed to get all the way to the end I commend you for your great patience and endurance. You have my gratitude as well as my condolences. Sorry, I just had to share it and I hope it wasn’t as painful for you to read as it was for me to experience. You know, retirement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I guess I just need to get a job so I don’t have all this free time on my hands to write this gibberish. But as I stated in the prologue, you just can’t make this stuff up!