Do I Have to Complete the American Community Survey (ACS)?

February 20, 2023 By 4 Comments

Every year, millions of U.S. residents receive a thick packet of information, either through email or snail mail. These packets are from the U.S. Census Bureau, and ask the recipient to participate in the American Community Survey (ACS).

Many who receive these requests wonder if it is legitimate or not. They may also wonder if it’s true that they have to fill out and return the packet, since it says, “your response is required by law.”

First, we want to put your mind at ease and assure you that any envelope or email you receive saying it’s the ACS is likely to be legitimate. If you want to verify it, you can always call or email the Census Bureau to confirm you were one of the selected recipients.

You should also know that if your household receives the ACS, it is absolutely worth completing. The information gathered by the ACS allows U.S. agencies to fully understand your neighborhood, your community, and how people like you live and work. This information informs policy decisions on both a local and national level that can benefit your community. In addition, it also helps dictate how over $600 billion in federal and state funds are spent annually to help local communities like yours.

What Is the American Community Survey, the Census’ Lesser-Known Cousin?

Every 10 years, the U.S. government is required under the constitution to count every single resident. This process is colloquially known as “the census,” and most of the public is well aware of when it is being conducted.

There’s also another, lesser-known survey instrument used by the U.S. The Census Bureau called the ACS. Every month, the Census Bureau sends out about 3.5 million surveys to a randomly selected sample of addresses. 

Recipients are expected to answer on behalf of their household. Survey answers provide detailed information, beyond what’s captured in the Census. The ACS requests more-detailed job, education, and household finance information such as: 

  • Household income and earnings
  • Typical expenses
  • How people in the household commute to work/school
  • Detailed ancestry information
  • Computer and internet use
  • Health insurance coverage
  • What languages are spoken at home
  • Total housing costs, how long you’ve lived there, and the value of your home
  • What kind of kitchen facilities are available
  • Number of bedrooms and how many people per room

When put together, all of this information paints the most detailed national picture possible, while giving shape to the unique nature of each smaller community.

Why Is It Important to Complete the ACS?

First, any information you provide to the Census Bureau is 100% confidential and anonymous. Your data will be mixed in with millions of other entries and given statistical noise so that your individual household cannot be identified.

Second, the data provided by the ACS is extremely important for creating the right programs and building the right infrastructure for your community. With information like daily commuting figures, for example, your state might decide to invest in more roads and bridges to ease up traffic. Or your state may invest in a form of alternative transit, like commuter rails. Other policies and services that may be affected include:

  • School funding and educational programs conducted in your area, which depend upon the ACS for local information and to benchmark their own research
  • Increased funding for emergency medical and fire services for your area, based on ACS data such as disability status and number of vehicles available
  • Improved road and highway infrastructure to better accommodate traffic patterns, based on the traffic and commute information 
  • Housing policies and regulations, such as those designed to help ease overcrowding in some areas, with local government officials evaluating housing issues using the  information provided by the questions about rooms and number of people living in a housing unit
  • Planning and funding for housing assistance programs for an area, where housing quality issues can be identified with ACS data related to plumbing and kitchen facilities  

Third, realize that other organizations out there use the data created by the survey to make informed decisions. For example, businesses may use the information to decide where to locate new offices or a retail storefront.

Our modern society thrives on data. Information on things like household size, education, income, and career fuel decisions that help your community grow, improve, and develop into an easier place to live. The ACS happens to be one of the best sources of that sort of information out there.

What Happens if I Don’t Complete the ACS?

Most people aren’t familiar with the ACS, and the ACS asks extremely detailed questions not just about who lives there but also personal aspects about religion, your occupation, and more. As a result, many people are understandably confused, uncomfortable, or otherwise reluctant to respond.

Many people who receive the ACS may wonder: “Do I have to do this? And what happens if I don’t?” 

The reality is that your response is, technically, required by law. However, in actual practice, the Census Bureau has not prosecuted anyone for ACS non-response in over 50 years. In fact, the Census Bureau itself admits that it is not in the business of criminal prosecutions, and there have been no fines and other forms of prosecution since the 1970s.

Remember that the Census Bureau wants to make this as easy for you to complete as they can. You have the option to allow someone you trust to complete the survey for you. The Census Bureau can also provide accommodations for individuals with disabilities or other specific needs who may have difficulty completing the survey on their own. 

Everyone Benefits from the ACS

It’s true, you won’t really get in trouble if you don’t complete the ACS. However, it’s important to remember answering the survey can fill in gaps in information about your community as a whole. The information can lead to better decisions made on a local level and impact people’s lives.

This information is so important that the Census Bureau offers multiple ways to complete your survey. You will initially receive instructions to answer your survey online. If you prefer not to use the online option, you’ll receive a paper form in the mail a short time later. In some remote areas, a Census employee may interview you in person to complete the questionnaire. 

Workers at the Census Bureau understand that the survey can be time-consuming. It’s understandable that the ACS could raise suspicion in a world plagued by scammers and others trying to steal your personal information. Rest assured that your responses are 100% confidential and anonymous, and the Bureau is legally bound to keep them that way!

After all, not only is the ACS vital for helping appropriate funds and providing other resources to your community, but you would also be in limited company by refusing. The Census Bureau reports that the ACS had over an 85% response rate in 2021. 

So if you receive a request to complete the ACS, feel encouraged to do your part, and provide valuable information about your community.

Get High Quality, Accurate, and Up-to-Date ACS Information About Any Community in the U.S. Via EASI!

EASI supplements our decennial U.S. Census data with information from the ACS, other data sources, and our own methods and modeling. We model the most current year of data and project out for five year estimates. 

This data is one of the most important sources of information we use to provide EASI on-demand reports and our EASI databases. You can:

  • Generate data on-demand, access it anytime you want, or purchase a comprehensive license to publish, resell, or use it for your own purposes
  • Choose the communities or geographic regions you want and choose from hundreds of different variables

Harnessing the amazing potential and power of the ACS is possible, and we make it EASI! Contact us today or visit our website to learn more.


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