A Woodsboro couple is refusing to respond to a U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, saying the federal government's questionnaire is too invasive.
Now, Bob and Joan Rapier say their lack of response is being met with harassing phone calls from Census employees, one of which threatened a fine of up to $5,000.
“We are being harassed,” said Joan Rapier, 68.
The couple said they received a 28-page questionnaire about two weeks before Christmas. Aside from more innocuous questions like the number of people in the household, the questionnaire seeks answers about home mortgages and income. Joan Rapier said those questions were “offensive to us.”
“Somebody got carried away with this,” said Bob Rapier, 72.
The questionnaire was followed by a call during the holidays inquiring why it had not yet been returned, Joan Rapier said. The caller also tried to encourage the couple to complete the form online, she said.
Instead, when Joan Rapier told the Census representative that the questions were “too invasive” and “too personal,” adding that they shouldn't have to answer, she said she was threatened with a fine and jail time. She said she then spoke with a supervisor who also urged the couple to respond, adding that the information provided to the Census via the surveys helps communities make decisions about future road and school construction.
“You shouldn't have my personal information to build a road,” Joan Rapier said.
The couple estimated they have received eight to 10 phone calls from the bureau during the last month. Joan Rapier said she has participated in other Census surveys in the past, the last one about 18 months ago.
“This is much more detailed and personal in nature,” she said.
The Census form estimates that it takes about 40 minutes to reply to its questionnaire. Documents received by the couple from the bureau also tell the couple that they are legally obligated to reply.
The Census does not ask respondents for Social Security numbers.
Despite promises by the Census that it keeps respondent information confidential, the Rapiers said they are still worried in light of recent high-profile information breaches. With cases like the National Security Agency spying on residents, they said if the government is looking for information, it can find it on its own using property records and information gathered through the Internal Revenue Service.
Tim Olson, a respondent advocate for the Census, said the questions are “designed to get a picture of the well-being of a community and what their needs are.”
A little more than $4 billion is annually allocated based on the data provided, Olson said. The ACS is sent to about 3.5 million homes annually and has a 98 percent response rate, which Olson called “incredible.” Addresses are chosen at random, he said.
“It's really important that people participate,” Olson said. Census tries to appeal to people's “civic duty” to encourage participation, Olson said.
As for what happens to the 2 percent of surveys that are not returned, Olson said: “we are able to get by.”
Olson said he was not aware of any cases in which people have been charged for failing to respond, but said jail time is not part of the punishment.
Census spokeswoman Jennifer Smits said that while law authorizes the bureau to impose criminal penalties, "we view this approach as a last resort."
"On three occasions, nonrespondents have been prosecuted for failing to answer a census or survey," Smits said. Both she and Census spokesman Michael Cook stressed that the bureau is not an enforcement agency. No one has been prosecuted for failing to respond since the 1970 Census, Cook said.
Olson said he was willing to talk with the Rapiers to encourage their response. The couple declined the request. Instead, they contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland to see if the organization might assist should they face legal challenges.
David Rocah, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, could not confirm if the organization would take up the Rapier's case. He said the privacy issue "crops up with regularity every time the ACS goes out."
The U.S. Constitution mandates that the Census be taken, and federal law also protects respondent's privacy, Rocah said. The Census has a strong track record of keeping information private, he added. While privacy concerns "are understandable," it is federal law to respond, Rocah said.
"Our view on all this is that the Census is an important function of the federal government and plays a vital role in democracy, but we also recognize the ... privacy concerns and believe that the answers to most Census questions should be voluntary," he said.
If someone in Maryland were prosecuted, the ACLU "would be very concerned," he added.
If the government does seek to penalize the couple, Bob Rapier said they'd pay it.
“Then we'd have to get a lawyer,” Bob Rapier said. “Then maybe the ACLU will help us.”
Follow Courtney Mabeus on Twitter: @courtmabeus.
On the Web
To view a sample American Community Survey: