In the USA, the Constitution requires a Census every ten years. Anyone living here, legally or not, are required by law to respond to the Census, as well as be truthful. This has been the case from from the first Census taken in 1790, till that last one in 2020.

The punishment has even been amended by Congress twice since its inception.

However, in the last 233 years, only a handful of people have been prosecuted for violating this law. And of those, only two people have been convicted. Of those two, one had the conviction overturned.

What is the point of one of the oldest laws, in which some people have cared enough to amend, but not enough to actually enforce?

This might be more of a political question, but maybe there is a legal reason?

Edit: I cant find exact numbers - and exact numbers might be impossible to get - but from some quick research, it sounds like not answering the census at all is fairly common. From one post on the Census Bureau's website, the answer rate is over 60%. And as far as I can tell, there is no numbers on people responding being complete or truthful.

  • FWIW, the penalty was changed in the 1980s as a result of a broader law changing penalties for an entire class of criminal behavior. The penalty changed not because anybody cared to amend this specific law, but because nobody cared enough to carve out an exception for it. Jun 5, 2023 at 18:02
  • The unstated implication seems to be that there should be more prosecutions, which in turn suggests that there is a meaningful number of people violating the law. I'm not sure there's really any meaningful level of noncompliance.
    – bdb484
    Jun 5, 2023 at 18:04
  • @bdb484 I edited my question to include this. It seems non-compliance is very common. From what I saw on the Census Bureau's website, the 2020 Census had over a 60% compliance rate - and that doesnt include truthfulness, as far as I can tell.
    – Keltari
    Jun 5, 2023 at 18:14
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    Do laws have to be enforced to be valid? Most citizens obey laws without needing enforcement. Perhaps without it, the census database would be even smaller, rendering it less useful as a statistical tool. Jun 5, 2023 at 19:23
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    @Keltari yet every citizen obeys even more laws every day than they violate. For example, hundreds of thousands of Philadelphia residents obey the ordinance against keeping farm animals every day despite the absence of systematic enforcement.
    – phoog
    Jun 5, 2023 at 23:33

1 Answer 1


However, in the last 233 years, only a handful of people have been prosecuted for violating this law.

The census bureau has noticed that a more effective way to get everyone counted is to follow up in person if someone neglects to respond to the questionnaire. Once they follow up and the person has responded, there's no longer a basis for prosecuting.

What is the point of one of the oldest laws, in which some people have cared enough to amend, but not enough to actually enforce?

The possibility of prosecution is presumably thought to increase the response rate even if virtually nobody is ever prosecuted. The law also serves as a formal statement by congress that responding to the census is important, even if the executive doesn't prosecute people for failing to do so.

Another thing to consider is that an element of the offense specified in 13 USC 221 is refusal or willful neglect. Without evidence of an affirmative refusal to respond, the prosecutor would need evidence of willfulness, which goes to state of mind, and that is notoriously difficult to prove. Any defendant who claims to have intended to respond but for chronic forgetfulness would introduce reasonable doubt unless the prosecutor had something to show that the defendant intentionally refrained from responding.

  • To put it simply, the prosecutor has to prove that the person who failed to respond to the census did so because they wanted to break the law and not... "I'm sorry, your honor, I just plumb forgot.. the paperwork fell behind my fridge... my dog at my form... ect. To say nothing with the fact that at the Federal Level, prosecutors have to pick and choose their cases better... which is wort their time and tax payer funding: The little old lady who mailed her census for to a non-existent address... or the terrorist cell that's planning some violent action?
    – hszmv
    Jun 5, 2023 at 20:10
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    @hszmv it's not necessary to prove that they wanted to break the law. Proving that they wanted not to respond for any other reason would suffice. For example, someone who is unaware of the law but is for some reason opposed to the census and decides, because of that opposition, to ignore all communication from the census bureau, would be guilty of willfully neglecting to answer.
    – phoog
    Jun 5, 2023 at 23:22

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