Category Archives: The Census

More About the Census

A family member received her Census questionnaire, and, being quite sick of the federal government at this point, not to mention distrustful that the government can truly keep her personal information safe and private, she asked:

“What happens if I don’t answer?”

Hmm.  Like many, I’ve run into this YouTube video from “MinivanJack,” by Jerry Day Productions, which emphasizes the constitutional concerns but does not address the federal laws at play.

I’ve just discovered a follow-up video from MinivanJack, and I am listening to it as I type.  In it, he addresses U.S. Code Title 13.  His layman’s view is that the applicable statutes are not constitutional and thus not enforceable.  Then he encourages you to make your own decision.

Folks at the blog Ramparts 360 have done most of the work for me, with this post.  The relevant statute is in Title 13, Census, Section 221, Refusal or neglect to answer questions; false answers. 

It says that refusal to answer any questions “in connection with any census or survey
provided for by subchapters I, II, IV, and V of chapter 5 of this title,” shall be fined not more than $100.  Willfully giving false information ups the ante to $500.

MinivanJack discusses at length the difference between long and short forms, and census versus surveys, but I don’t think any of that matters.  Chapters I, II, IV and V of Title 13 pretty much covers every type of form, and the fine section applies to them all.

Things get a little more interesting at the U.S. Census Bureau’s own website, which claims fines of up to $5000.oo are possible:

Title 18 U.S.C. Section 3571 and Section 3559, in effect amends Title 13 U.S.C. Section 221 by changing the fine for anyone over 18 years old who refuses or willfully neglects to complete the questionnaire or answer questions posed by census takers from a fine of not more than $100 to not more than $5,000.

We have Ramparts 360’s coverage to thank for that little tidbit, too.  A commenter mercifully did even more work, providing his interpretation of Sections 3559 and 3571 in Title 18, Crimes and Criminal Procedures:

I was reading up on Title 18 U.S.C. Section 3571 and Section  3559 and only section 3571 mentions fines BUT According to this section of the law it would not increase the max fine to $5000:
(e) Special Rule for Lower Fine Specified in Substantive Provision.— If a law setting forth an offense specifies no fine or a fine that is lower than the fine otherwise applicable under this section and such law, by specific reference, exempts the offense from the applicability of the fine otherwise applicable under this section, the defendant may not be fined more than the amount specified in the law setting forth the offense.

On reading the sections myself, I completely agree that the $5000 provision does not apply.  Which means that some no-account blogger and some who-knows-who average joe are more accurate than the folks running things at the Census Bureau’s official website.

I believe a Glenn Reynolds quote is appropriate:  heh.

The Historical and Revision Notes at the bottom of 13 U.S.C. § 221 shows that we’ve been under threat of fines since 1952, at least.  The comprehensive nature of the questioning, however, is relatively new:

Beginning with the 2005 ACS, and continuing every year thereafter, 1-year estimates of demographic, social, economic and housing characteristics are available for geographic areas with a population of 65,000 or more.

Also interesting:  Section 221 used to allow imprisonment for up to sixty days for refusing or
willfully neglecting to answer questions, and up to one year for willfully providing false info.  This was repealed in 1976.  (You’ll find this in the Amendments section, under the Historical Notes and Revisions.)

I haven’t received anything from the Census Bureau yet.  I am not sure what I intend to do with it.  There is a movement to answer the race question with “American” or “human,” and I may do that.  I don’t believe that could be construed as a “willfully false” response.

Could it?

If you just get the short form, I understand it is not so invasive.  If you are in the minority that receive the American Community Survey, well that one is pretty detailed. 

 Some folks think it’s important to draw a line in the sand.  To put the federal behemoth in its place by refusing to answer questions beyond “how many are in your home.”  Others think like Mr. Colbert: wow you are a bunch of paranoid kooks. 

If you decide to be a rebel and refuse to answer, you can expect a series of phone calls, followed up with some Census employees ringing your doorbell. provides the full rundown.  According to that site, there are no reported instances of the Census Bureau taking legal or financial action to those refusing to answer.


Any guinea pigs out there?