Inside the American Community Survey - A Non-Planner's View

The apartment where Ishmael Sanchez lives was randomly selected to participate in the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. He's not a planner or a demographer, and doesn't use or particularly care about Census data. But, because he was required by law to do so, he responded to the survey.

Photo: Ishmael SanchezI recently received a postcard from the U.S. Census Bureau informing me that I would soon be mailed a copy of the "American Community Survey". The postcard also informed that I was required by law to respond.

The American Community Survey, I found out, is a data-collection process that is part of the U.S. Census. It collects data on a rolling basis, unlike the main Census, which is only conducted once every ten years. I'm not a planner or a demographer and don't really use any census data in my job or in my daily life. The following is a summary of my experience filling out the survey.

Two days after my first correspondence from the Census Bureau, I received a thick envelope containing a dense 28-page booklet, a prepaid envelope, and a note from the Census Bureau reminding me that I was required by law to complete the survey. Various pamphlets were also included, describing what the survey is and what it does, along with help documents explaining how to complete the survey and FAQ's about the survey itself. After sorting through all the documents I placed them in my "to do" pile. Three days later I received another postcard from the Census Bureau saying that they just recently sent the "American Community Survey" and, once again, reminding me that I was required by law to respond to the survey. My prompt response, they said, would be beneficial.

Photo: American Community Survey Documents
The American Community Survey, and all its accompanying documentation.

I opened up the booklet, read the directions and dutifully began filling out the survey. The directions stated that it takes, on average, approximately 40 minutes to complete. I quickly answered the basic questions: age, sex, martial status and how many people reside at my residence. These were pretty straightforward questions, and

Next I was asked whether I am Spanish, Hispanic or Latino. I am, so I mark an X next to the subchoice labeled "Yes, Mexican, Mexican American, or Chicano". However, the next question was a bit perplexing. It asked "What is this person's race?" -- a question I thought I had just answered. Above this question was a blurb stating that Spanish, Hispanic and Latino were not considered races by the survey! Seeing that my group was not an option, I was left with the following choices: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, other Asian (print race), Native Hawaiian, Guamanian or Chamorro, Samoan, Pacific Islander (print race) or some other race (print race). I picked "other" and entered "Mexican American".

The set of questions that followed were much more straightforward: place of birth, citizenship, school enrollment, educational attainment, ethnic origin, languages spoken, residence one year ago and children born in the past twelve months.

The subsequent series of questions was focused on my housing, and I had to answer questions pertaining to the building I live in: the number of units in the structure, the year it was built, the date I moved in, the building's acreage, whether any businesses or medical offices are located on the property, and the number of rooms and bedrooms. The last couple questions didn't quite apply to me, as I live in a studio apartment.

Photo: Reminder to Complete Survey

The questions then got more detailed and asked whether I had piped water, what kitchen appliances were available (sink, stove and refrigerator), what telephone service I used to make and receive calls, what fuel/s was/were used in the unit. Other questions asked about the cost of utilities and which utilities were used by the building, whether I owned or rented the building, cost of insurance, rent cost, taxes on the property, real estate taxes and my estimated value of the building overall.

Once I completed that section I was asked to fill out information about the other people residing with me. I live alone so I was able to skip about a third of the survey.

The next set of questions seemed concerned with disability, work and labor. I was asked if I had any long-lasting disabilities, if I was a veteran and when I served. I found this line of questioning interesting because it actually applied to me; I did serve on active duty in the military and I do have a long lasting disability.

Next, I had to answer whether I was currently working, and how many weeks and hours I worked, on average, in the past twelve months, and what type of industry I was in. The survey also asked about the location of my current employment and how I got to work on average (car, public transit, walk, etc.), and my income (I had to cite various sources: salary and disability income, accrued interest and investments) and my overall income during the past twelve months.

After I completed all of the sections that applied to me (approximately 12 of the 28 pages) I closed the booklet and placed it in the postage-paid envelope according to the directions stated on the survey.

Aside from the confusing race and ethnic questions, the annoying reminders, and some intrusive questions, my experience with the American Community Survey was fairly painless. I just hope that all the information I provided helps out.


Ishmael Sanchez is a web developer for Urban Insight Inc., a Los Angeles-based internet consulting firm. He is a native of Madison, Wisconsin. He really enjoys living and working in Los Angeles.

Comments

Comments

Hispanic & Race? Can I have a 'Mestizo' choice?

As a Hispanic, I agree with your confusion about this question. It often seems to pop up on surveys, though I never received the ACS.

I understand, as my anthropology/sociology friends tell me, that race and ethnicity are different. The Census is concerned whether you are black-Hispanic, white-Hispanic, asian-Hispanic. The Census here wants to distinguish a Black Puerto Rican from a White Puerto Rican, for example.

The problem that I always find with these surveys is that I do not consider myself "white-Hispanic." Although I think that is technically what I am (just your run-of-the mill kind-of-tan Hispanic). In the Census data, the vast majority of Hispanics do identify as "White Hispanic." So in a way, I think thats what you and I are.

The problem with this is that I consider myself different than "white." I know I'm not Black or Asian. If anything, my bloodline consists of a healthy mix of white European and indigenous Central American blood. Both of my parents were born in Nicaragua, and my family goes back a long way in Central America. I don't know when the European mix came in, but I figure it is there.

I know White Hispanics. I grew up in Miami. There were Cubans who were Whiter than White people I knew. Blonde hair, blue eyes, the whole typical Caucasian look. When I think of "White Hispanic," I think of these people....or some Argentines or Chileans.

So what do I consider myself? I consider myself Mestizo Hispanic, if we have to make a distinction among Hispanics, but that is not a standard choice. I think we need to distinguish Hispanics who look white from Hispanics who look more, well...Hispanic. That is to say, I am likely to face more discrimination with my "visible minority" status than a fair-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Hispanic will. Isn't this the distinction that we want to make? It doesn't seem to make sense clumping the "mestizo" Hispanics with "white" Hispanics.

I think there is a difference.

- Michael Rodriguez

census question re race

Interesting subject. Here is another variation on the question of race. I usually find it annoying to have to answer questions of race, since I never seem to be able to identify with any of the choices given. The reason is that I am Jewish, and given the history of the Jews, i.e., a history of oppression and persecution, usually by "white" people, once referred to as "aryans", or "europeans", I cannot bring myself to say that I am "white", even though if you saw me you would see a white person with blue eyes, etc. I am certainly not "black" either, or any of the other "races" that are provided as choices. I therefore think that questions regarding race are really a red herring. I don't believe there really is a technically valid definition of race, and to ask the race question will always engender more confusion and mininformation than it is worth. So with respect to the race questions on surveys, my usuall answer is "other". So much for useful data.

Helping You Make Informed

Helping You Make Informed Decisions— US Census Bureau Motto

My informed decision is NO! I won't answer the questions. I won't answer the phone. I won't answer the door. There. I said it. Do I feel better or more brave because I took a stand? No. Actually, I feel more uneasy because I feel far less free to speak my political mind than I ever have in my life. The overwhelming sense of foreboding I feel is deeply disturbing. I'm 60.

Most people don't even know about The American Community Survey (ACS). Sounds friendly enough, doesn't it? After all, we're all Americans, our sense of Community is important, and we love to voice our opinions, especially if someone is taking a Survey.What Ad Agency or PR Firm was paid for that extraordinary wordsmithing? Bureaucrats aren't that creative.

My ACS sat in the Junk Mail Pile for awhile because it was addressed to "Resident". Arriving next, a Fed-Ex from the "US Government Printing Office" and I thought, Now what? Opened the Fed-Ex, and it was a relief to see my renewed passport. Thinking these pieces of mail were somehow connected, I opened The American Creepy Survey (ACS). It must be a joke, a scam— who in their right mind would write down answers to these probing, intrusive questions and then just drop it in the mail? Where does the hard copy go? Who sees it? Who has access to it? It is not a survey using a mainstream definition— those are voluntary. This is an interrogation— your response is required by law and it feels like a strip-search of your personal information.

There is a glut of information about ACS and some fine editorial comment questioning privacy issues that I'll link to later. It took some creative Googling to find any personal accounts of other people who share my viewpoint. Most of the ACS protesters are buried deep in Google's pages, a few forum comments here and there, mostly dated.The ACS seems so easy to dismiss— until you get one. Am I obsessing about this, taking it too personal, being overly suspicious, distrustful, paranoid? Am I missing something? Noooooo, I don't think so.

Perseverance pays off! Imagine my surprise when I found a website called Survival Arts with the longest running ACS commentary dating from 2004! What a great read! Trust those gut feelings— it is them ,not us. Russell was going to take the ACS portion off and then it started getting busy— so busy in fact, his website stats showed bureaucratic interest.

_____________________
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