Local News

Americans required to answer personal census questions

Posted June 5, 2009 4:44 p.m. EDT
Updated June 5, 2009 7:00 p.m. EDT

— When the U.S. Census Bureau comes knocking, you need to start talking – even if you think the questions are too personal.

Dale Osbourne, of Chapel Hill, said he expects to fill out the standard 10-question census form and give the government such information as his name, address and how many people live in his household.

"Maybe my age. After that, I'd start wondering," Osbourne said.

But he could become one of the citizens asked by the Census Bureau to fill out the American Community Survey. Residents like Osbourne would then have to answer more personal questions, broaching such topics as income and spending habits.

"I would not be real inclined to give that information up freely. I'd probably want to explore what rights I had in that situation," Osbourne said.

His rights wouldn't include the right to refuse to fill out either census form, officials said.

"It really is in your own best interest to fill out the forms, but there is technically a penalty if you don't fill them out," said Bob Coats, the governor's census liaison.

And what happens if you don't?

"You will get follow-up visits from census workers knocking on your doors, asking you the same questions," Coats said. They will also call people who fail to send in the American Community Survey.

After that comes a $100 fine for skipping out on the forms. A $500 fine is the penalty for providing false information.

Coats said the government isn't trying to be nosy, but the survey provides important information that is used to distribute $300 billion in federal money properly. States and local communities also use the survey data for planning, he said.

"This is how we know who we are, how we know what the needs of our community are," Coats said.

Osbourne said that the specter of a fine is enough motivation to answer some questions, even if he doesn't understand why they are so personal.

"I guess if I was told I had to tell, I'd tell," he said.

All Census Bureau employees will have a badge number that can be verified with your local census office. Coats said you can also call local law enforcement if you feel that someone's claim to be a census worker is questionable.