The American Community Survey: Is it legit & do you have to answer?

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You may be aware that we’re coming up on the decennial census next year. The 2020 Census will provide an official count of the U.S. population to Congress.

But did you know there’s another long-form questionnaire that comes from the U.S. Census Bureau every year? And that it must be answered if you happen to receive it on a randomized basis?

It’s called the American Community Survey (ACS) and it’s a legitimate survey that brings with it heavy penalties if you choose not to answer it — despite the legitimate privacy concerns you may have when you see the kinds of questions that are asked of you.

Let’s take a closer look at the American Community Survey

Each year, the U.S. Census Bureau randomly selects 3.5 million households across the country to complete the American Community Survey. The ACS is conducted in four different ways — via internet, mail, telephone and in-person interviews.

The answers we all provide are used to help determine the best distribution of more than $675 billion in federal and state funds annually.

That money will ultimately “help your community plan for hospitals and schools, support school lunch programs, improve emergency services, build bridges, and inform businesses looking to add jobs and expand to new markets,” according to

So not answering the ACS actually does your community a disservice.

But it’s not just your community that will suffer. If you decide not to respond to the ACS, you could be fined up to $5,000 under Title 18 U.S.C Section 3571 and Section 3559, which amends Title 13 U.S.C. Section 221.

The American Community Survey: Table of contents

What’s asked on the American Community Survey?

Critics of the ACS feel it’s a prime example of government overreach. They say it’s Big Brother sticking his nose into your private life where it doesn’t belong.

That attitude isn’t surprising given the personal nature of some of the questions:



  • Ancestry
  • Citizenship status
  • Disability status
  • Educational attainment
  • Fertility
  • Grandparents as caregivers
  • Language spoken at home
  • Marital history
  • Marital status
  • Migration/Residence 1 year ago
  • Place of birth
  • School enrollment
  • Undergraduate field of degree
  • Veteran status; period of military service
  • Year of entry


  • Class of worker
  • Commuting (journey to work) and place of work
  • Employment status
  • Food stamps/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Health insurance coverage
  • Income and earnings
  • Industry and occupation
  • Poverty status
  • Work status last year


  • Bedrooms
  • Computer and Internet use
  • House heating fuel
  • Kitchen facilities
  • Occupancy/vacancy status
  • Occupants per room
  • Plumbing facilities
  • Rent
  • Rooms
  • Selected monthly owner costs
  • Telephone service available
  • Tenure (owner/renter)
  • Units in structure
  • Value of home
  • Vehicles available
  • Year householder moved into unit
  • Year structure built


  • Age; Sex
  • Group quarters population
  • Hispanic or Latino origin
  • Race
  • Relationship to householder
  • Total population

When digging a little deeper, we found the questions below in a sample questionnaire that the Census Bureau makes available. (Block letters and italics left intact from the original source.)


  • How did this person usually get to work LAST WEEK?
  • How many people, including this person, usually rode to work in the car, truck, or van LAST WEEK?
  • What time did this person usually leave home to go to work LAST WEEK?


  • How many separate rooms are in this house, apartment, or mobile home?
  • How much is the regular monthly mortgage payment on THIS property?
  • Does this house, apartment or mobile home have –
    • a. hot and cold running water?
    • b. a bathtub or shower?
    • c. a sink with a faucet?
    • d. a stove or range?
    • e. a refrigerator?
    • f. telephone service from which you can both make and receive calls? Include cell phones.

Remember, those are just a couple stray questions from two categories!

Other questions are reportedly even more intimate. The New York Times notes there’s one query about flush toilets in your home that some politicians love to cite as being way too Big Brother-ish.

The Census Bureau, meanwhile, says that particular question is used to help gauge groundwater contamination in rural areas that lack modern waste disposal systems.

But why, ultimately, is such granular info about your life necessary? The Bureau offers an explanation online:

“Through the ACS, we know more about jobs and occupations, educational attainment, veterans, whether people own or rent their home, and many other topics. Public officials, planners, and entrepreneurs use this information to assess the past and plan the future,” notes in its FAQ section about the ACS.

american community survey

What about the privacy of my responses?

The Census Bureau notes that all employees who might potentially come into contact with your personal info have taken an oath of privacy. They are “are sworn for life to protect all information that could identify individuals.”

Penalties for breaching that oath include a fine of up to $250,000 or a prison sentence up to five years — or both.

The ACS and its representatives will never ask for your Social Security number. Nor will they ask for mother’s maiden name or credit card or bank account information.

That said, it is possible that criminals could try to somehow impersonate or spoof the ACS and its representatives to dupe unsuspecting victims. So you’ve got to be careful!


How can you protect yourself from possible criminals impersonating the ACS? has suggestions about how to verify you’re dealing with the real deal and not a criminal when the ACS comes into your life:


If you choose to reply online, you should look for authenticating info in the digital certificate when you hover your mouse over the URL field.

census authentication

By mail

If you receive the ACS in your mailbox and something about it looks a little off, you can always call 1-800-354-7271 to verify that the particular survey you received is legit.

By phone

Should the phone ring and someone on the other end of the line say they’re from the ACS, you don’t necessarily have to take their word for it.

Instead, you are encouraged to call one of the Census Bureau’s two telephone centers directly to determine the legitimacy of the call you just received:

  1. Jeffersonville, IN: 1-800-523-3205
  2. Tucson, AZ: 1-800-642-0469

In-person interview

Any Census Field Representative who comes knocking on your door will have an ID badge with a photograph, the Department of Commerce watermark and an expiration date.

According to, the following also applies to all field reps:

  • They will provide contact info for their supervisor and/or the regional office phone number for verification
  • They will provide a letter from the Director of the Census Bureau on U.S. Census Bureau letterhead
  • They may be in possession of a laptop and/or bag with a Census Bureau logo

Finally, the Census Bureau also makes a staff search tool available online so you can quickly verify that a field rep is who they claim to be and are in fact still employed by the Bureau.

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Editor’s note: This story was generated by calls to our Consumer Action Center. If you have further questions about the American Community Survey or anything else that’s affecting you as a consumer, give them a call at 404-892-8227 Monday-Thursday 10am-7pm ET, Friday 10am-4PM ET.

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