Census data promises detailed look at a changing America

Dec 13 2010 - 3:30pm

The American Community Survey's five-year estimates come out Tuesday.

So what does that mean to you? Well, at least to some extent, everything.

"Collectively, the American Community Survey and census data are critical components of the nation's information infrastructure, providing data essential to our economy and our communities," Robert Groves, U.S. Census Bureau director, said in a press release.

The American Community Survey, or ACS, is not the more familiar census conducted every 10 years. The decennial census is basically a head count -- essential for reapportioning federal and state elective offices, among other things.

The ACS provides a more detailed picture of a changing America. Introduced in 2005, the ongoing survey samples about 250,000 U.S. housing units each month. As of the 2010 census, it replaces the long form given to one in every six households.

Based on a combination of mailed questionnaires, phone interviews and visits with nearly 10 million Americans from 2005 through 2009, the ACS five-year estimates are being billed by Census as the largest demographic survey ever conducted in the United States.

While the census attempts to cover all U.S. households, it asks only 10 basic questions aimed mainly at counting the population. The ACS survey is much more detailed, with categories about income, occupation, education, travel, marital status and more. With the five-year estimates, information will be available down to the neighborhood level -- even in areas of minimal population.

"ACS data are required by numerous federal programs and for planning and decision-making at the state and federal level," Groves said. "ACS data help communities and businesses create jobs, plan for the future, establish new businesses and improve our economy."

The ACS is offered in one-, three- and five-year estimates and all will be updated annually. One- and three-year estimate information is already up on the U.S. Census website, www.census.gov.

The five-year estimate is substantially more detailed than the other two and will be the one most employed to provide the type of demographic information on which decisions are based. The inaugural five-year estimate -- the one coming Tuesday -- is what government agencies, businesses and even churches are awaiting around the nation.

"Suppose you have a grant application for federal funding in a specific community inside Knoxville," said Terry Gilhula, assistant manager of research for the Metropolitan Planning Commission in Knoxville, Tenn. Grant writers and funding decision-makers "need current data for that area for the application."

The data also matter to private enterprise.

"Businesses rely on this data. A Realtor will call and ask ... what the median household income for an area within a five-mile radius of West Town Mall is. With this, we can get current information of that data," Gilhula said. "We get calls from churches and nonprofits wanting to know some data and we were only getting that every 10 years" before the ACS.

Randy Gustafson directs the State Data Center at the University of Tennessee Center for Business and Economic Research, which works closely with the Census Bureau. He said the new ACS data would give details even about very small population groups.

"I think the ability to find out about ourselves is the big draw," Gustafson said. "If a school teacher in Union County were to give an assignment to class to find out something about Union County, the three-year ACS data are not available to them ... but five-year data will be."

The one- and three-year estimates were too broad for areas with populations of less than 20,000, which eliminated a third of Tennessee's counties, Gustafson said. But the five-year estimate will give data down to the neighborhood level and will have no such population cutoff.

"Another use for ACS data may be for relocation decisions. ... Someone moving across the country may not have much of an idea about the place he is going to, but he can learn a great deal from things like age of the people living in an area or percentage of renters vs. owners of homes."

(Steve Ahillen is data/investigative editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee.)


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