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Past, Present, and Future of the U.S. Census & American Community Survey

Past, Present, and Future of the U.S. Census & American Community Survey

By Jay Colbert, GIS Project Manager

(This is a re-post of a post that originally appeared in Polis Center’s blog, posted May 18, 2012)

When you think of the U.S. Census, the word “fun” is probably not the first that comes to mind. But you’d be surprised at some of the fun facts that come from the history of the census. The first census, taken in 1790, was performed by the U.S. Marshalls and cost a total of $45,000 (about half a million in today’s dollars). Things turned into a quagmire in 1880, when it took eight years to completely tabulate results for all variables, but then improved by 1890 with the introduction of electric tabulation. The first partial sampling was used in 1940 and evolved into the long-form data which many were familiar with for decades.

The decennial census used to be the only game in town, so you had to wait once every ten years for it. The 2000 Census had a short form that 5 of 6 households filled out and had only a few basic questions. The other 1 in 6 households received a long form that asked the really interesting questions about employment, income, language, education, housing costs, etc.

But the 2010 Census is not your father’s census. It’s more like your grandfather’s census since there is no more long form. So now we get the answers to the interesting questions from the American Community Survey (ACS) which is the Census Bureau’s replacement for long form data. ACS questionnaires are sent out on a rolling basis, which is good since it leads to data that is published annually. The bad news is that the overall sample sizes are small, leading to estimates that come with margins-of-error and data that is released in different “flavors,” e.g. 1-year estimates, 3-year averages, and 5-year averages. Polis’s SAVI relies on 5-year averages since it’s the only way to get complete data for smaller areas such as census tracts and neighborhoods.

Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to eliminate the American Community Survey as part of a larger budget. The bill is expected to die in the Senate. SAVI relies heavily on ACS data, and if small-area socio-economic data is important to you too, you may want to educate yourself on the status of the legislation and make your voice known to those in Congress casting the votes.


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