Friday, April 1, 2011

Relentless census worker demands to know couples' health, when they leave for work

Census worker won't take no for answer

Couple says questions too personal, threatened with fine if don't comply

Jon Yates

The first few requests were tolerable. A Census Bureau worker would knock on John and Beverly Scott's door and ask them to fill out an American Community Survey. The McKinley Park couple would politely decline.

But as the days passed, the visits became more frequent and the requests more urgent.

Some evenings, the doorbell would ring at dinnertime, then again at 10 p.m.

"I'm generally a nice guy. I didn't want to shut the door in her face," John Scott said. "I said, 'I'm not going to answer your questions.' She kept saying, 'You've got to, you've got to.' I shut the door, and she kept ringing the doorbell and tapping on the window."

It isn't that the Scotts are anti-government or are philosophically opposed to the census. The couple filled out their decennial form last year, answering every question.

But they're not too keen on the American Community Survey, a more in-depth, ongoing questionnaire the Census Bureau conducts to compile information on area demographics, consumer patterns and economic issues.

In particular, the Scotts did not want to answer questions they found too personal, such as inquiries about their income, when they left for work and their health.

"The new questionnaire has gone way over the line," Scott said. "We have told the representative that we are not going to answer private questions, but they continue to come to our door at all hours of the day and night."

Scott said the requests had become so repetitive and annoying, the couple began pulling the old "out-of-candy-on-Halloween trick."

"I work afternoons, and I'm not home," Scott said. "My wife has to sit with the lights off because she doesn't want to be bothered."

Often, even that doesn't work.

"They knock and knock and knock and ring and ring and ring," Beverly Scott said. "Knocking longer is not going to make me answer the door, and it's not going to help if we're not here."

The final straw, John Scott said, was when a Census Bureau employee told him he would be fined $2,000 if he did not fill out the 48-question survey.

Upset, he e-mailed What's Your Problem?

"If they come up with a fine, let's go to court. I don't care," he said. "I just want them to stop coming. That's my main focus. Leave me alone."

The Problem Solver called Jack Walsh, survey supervisor with the American Community Survey's Chicago regional office. Walsh said the survey is required by law and helps determine such things as the Consumer Price Index and how federal funding is allocated.

Although residents can be fined for not participating in the survey, he said that is not the government's goal.

"Those fines exist, but we instruct the field staff that their job is to try to obtain the information through pleasant means, by stressing the importance of the survey," Walsh said. "They're not law enforcement officers."

Walsh said the Scotts will not be fined if they choose not to participate in the survey.

"Realistically, we're not interested in prosecution," he said. "We're interested in obtaining information."

Walsh said households are selected randomly, and the information provided is kept confidential. Information is gathered in three-month cycles, meaning the Scotts would have received their survey in the mail in January, gotten telephone follow-ups in February, then been visited at home by regional field staff in March.

The cycle was scheduled to end within days, but Walsh said Tuesday that he would instruct the field staff to quit visiting the Scotts' home immediately.

"We won't bug him anymore in the next several days," Walsh said.

Beverly Scott said the requests ended immediately.

"They stopped calling and they stopped putting notes on the door and knocking," she said. "It was too much."