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The American Community Survey (ACS) is an ongoing statistical survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, sent to approximately 250,000 addresses monthly (or 3 million per year). It regularly gathers information previously contained only in the long form of the decennial census. It is the largest survey other than the decennial census that the Census Bureau administers.
Many Americans found filling out the long form to be burdensome and intrusive, and its unpopularity was a factor in the declining response rate to the decennial census. In 1995, the Bureau began the process of changing the means of obtaining the demographic, housing, social, and economic information from the census long form to the ACS. Testing began in 1996, and the ACS program began producing test data in 2000, 2001, and 2002.
The survey was fully implemented in 2005. The following year, the Census Bureau released estimates for all areas with populations of 65,000 or more using the data collected from January to December 2005. In 2010, the ACS produced its first set of estimates for areas of all population sizes, using information collected from January 2005 through December 2009.
The ACS has an initial sample of approximately 3 million housing unit addresses and group quarters in the United States, with sample selected from all counties and county-equivalents, American Indian and Alaska Native area, and Hawaiian Homeland, and in Puerto Rico annually. Data are collected primarily by mail, with follow-ups by telephone and personal visit. Approximately one third of those who do not respond to the survey by mail or telephone are randomly selected for in-person interviews, and the final response rate for that group was 98 percent in 2009. Because approximately two-thirds of mail/telephone nonrespondents are not selected for in-person follow-up interviews, the ACS only includes approximately 2 million final interviews per year. In 2009, completed ACS interviews represented 66.2 percent of the housing units initially selected for inclusion in the sample.
The Department of Commerce has stated that those who receive a survey form are legally obligated to answer all the questions as accurately as possible. Those who decline to complete the survey may receive follow-up phone calls and/or visits to their homes from Census Bureau personnel. Section 221 of Title 13 U.S.C., imposes a fine of not more than $100 if people refuse or willfully neglect to complete the questionnaire or answer questions posed by census takers. The fine for lying is $500. Despite internet rumors of a $5000 fine, the relevant section of US Code still shows the fines as $100 or $500 and refusing to answer is not a crime (misdemeanor or felony). The Census Bureau prefers to gain cooperation by convincing respondents of the importance of participation. To date, no person has ever been charged with a crime for refusing to answer the ACS. The Department of Commerce has stated that it is "not an enforcement agency".
The processed information provides yearly estimates for all states, as well as all cities, counties, metropolitan areas, and population groups of 65,000 people or more. For smaller areas, it is necessary to combine multiple survey years to obtain reliable estimates: three survey years in areas with 20,000 to 65,000 people, and five survey years in areas with fewer than 20,000 people. The quality of these samples was originally intended to match that of the decennial census long form, but because the sample size of the ACS is smaller than originally expected, ACS estimates are less precise than the comparable estimates from Census 2000 and prior decennial census years.
The survey asks for more information, and at a higher frequency, than the simple enumeration required by U.S. Constitution Article I Section 2. Several U.S. representatives have challenged the ACS as unauthorized by the Census Act and violative of the Right to Financial Privacy Act. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who opposes the ACS, said of it that the founding fathers of the United States "never authorized the federal government to continuously survey the American people."