I was surprised the other day to find the feds inquiring about how I live my life. They wanted to know if I owned my home. They wanted to know when it was built and how much it was worth. Who else lives there? How many bedrooms does it have? Is there a kitchen with a refrigerator and a stove?

These inquiries were not, as you might suspect, from the National Security Agency. Those guys don't tell you when they pry. They just fly a drone overhead get what they need with an X-ray camera.

These questions, 50 in all, were posed by the U.S. Census Bureau as part of what it calls the American Community Survey, which is sent randomly to 3.5 million households annually. This happened to be my lucky year.

What immediately catches your eye when the oversized envelope arrives is the bold lettering on the outside: "Your response is required by law."

Because I pride myself in being a law-abiding citizen, and because I would like to keep intact my streak of days outside of federal prison, I answered every question, from my use of the Internet to my personal health to my commuting habits to whether my bathrooms have flush toilets (yes, and I put down the lid when I'm finished).

Still, I couldn't help wonder why this information was so vital that the census bureau was willing to threaten me with the law. So I dialed up the bureau's headquarters in Washington, D.C., where Division Chief Jim Treat agreed to explain.


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"There are many usages for the data," he said. "The federal government uses it to allocate $450 billion annually across the country. The Department of Transportation uses it to allocate resources for road construction and repairs. The Department of Education uses it with schools. Local governments use it to decide where to put services like hospitals. Businesses use it to decide where to put stores and what products to sell."

I had no idea my information was so valuable to so many people.

The American Community Survey began in 2005, and about 300,000 questionnaires are randomly distributed every month. The aggregate data, Treat said, ensures a margin of error of plus- or minus-3 percent. He proudly noted that the survey generates more than a 97 percent response rate. I suggested that the threat of federal prosecution may be one of the reasons.

"Research shows that the message on the envelope does get people to open it and see what's inside," he said. "But the penalty is very small, and we don't actually penalize people. We're not an enforcement agency."

Now he tells me.

The census bureau, which people best know for its decennial head count, administers more than 100 surveys and censuses, often collecting demographic data. Included are household surveys, business-related surveys, economic surveys and surveys of "group quarters."

"Places like prisons and dormitories," Treat explained.

I wonder if legal threats are effective with prisoners.

I get the questions about educational levels, ethnic origins and automobiles owned. But, really, flush toilets?

"That's a question a lot of people ask about," Treat said, "because most people think flush toilets are everywhere. Unfortunately, there are areas that don't have those facilities."

He would know.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.