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Link to Census 2000 Gateway The American Community Survey -- New Road Map to America's Future (Revised 3/22/99)

(Editor's note: This replaces an earlier version, dropin article #11, with the same title.)

Imagine how hard it would be to plan a long trip using a map that was five, eight or even nine years out of date. So many things may have changed that the old map might almost be useless.

For government agencies, the census of population and housing that takes place every 10 years is the road map that helps them make multiple decisions, such as where to put new roads and schools. Thousands of large and small community-based organizations also use census information to gauge the need for human services and match the unemployed with jobs.

To help keep the community's understanding of local needs and resources up to date, the Census Bureau is designing the American Community Survey (ACS), which eventually will replace the decennial census "long form."

During the census, 5 out of 6 of the nation's housing units receive a copy of the short form, which asks basic information, such as the name, age, sex and race of the persons in the household. About 1 in 6 addresses receives the census long form, which asks a total of 52 questions (including the seven short-form questions) about the residents' demographic characteristics, the housing they live in, how they go to and from work, the languages they speak at home and other information that helps define the patterns of community life in our country.

The information gathered from the long form is important in painting a statistical picture of the trends that affect our nation.

Information about income, housing and poverty rates is a tool that enables federal, state and local government agencies to put tax dollars to the best use. Statistics showing where people work and how they get there help cities and towns develop better transportation plans to save travel time and conserve natural resources.

"Our county is growing rapidly and we depend on census data very heavily to get a feel for our shifting demographics," said Anne Cahill of the Fairfax County (Va.) Office of Management. "We particularly want to understand how many people speak a language other than English. It was 10.7 percent in 1980, 17 percent in 1990 and we're estimating 30 percent for 1998."

"In the future we'd like to get the foreign language data more frequently," Cahill said. "Not only does this trend affect schools, but we also want to make sure that we have enough police officers and firefighters who speak foreign languages so they can communicate with recent immigrants in an emergency."

Introducing the American Community Survey

The problem with information from the census long form is that it is only collected every 10 years and it rapidly goes out of date between censuses. Try and estimate how many people use home computers today -- a question that could be added to the ACS questionnaire -- by looking at figures from 1990. Not even the most far-seeing crystal ball gazer could have guessed.

To have reliable annual data is why the Census Bureau is introducing the ACS. For now, it will contain only those questions Congress has already approved for the census long form. Every year, the ACS will produce accurate demographic and socio-economic information for every state in the nation, as well as every city, county, town or population group of 65,000 people or more.

The ACS is being implemented in four phases. The demonstration phase began in 1996 in four representative sites. In 1997, the survey expanded to eight sites to evaluate costs, procedures and new ways to use the information. In 1998, the ACS was extended to a ninth site consisting of two counties in South Carolina that also were part of the Census Bureau's dress rehearsal for Census 2000 to investigate the effects on both the ACS and the census of having the two activities going on in the same place at the same time.

For the 1999-2002 comparison site phase, the number of sites in the sample was increased to 31. The comparison with Census 2000 will collect several kinds of information necessary to understand the differences between ACS and the 2000 long form. It will compare the ACS estimates and the Census 2000 long-form estimates.

The ACS is slated for full implementation nationwide in 2003 and beyond. If approved by Congress, the monthly survey will replace the census long form in 2010.

The ACS will benefit the 2010 census in five ways: allows more effective targeting of neighborhoods requiring assistance (for example, neighborhoods in which a high proportion of the population speaks a language other than English); simplifies the 2010 census data collection and processing by replacing the long form; improves coverage through a continuously updated address list, including regular interaction with local officials; spreads the decennial census budget bulge more evenly over the decade; and establishes a cadre of professional, experienced field representatives in hard-to-enumerate areas.

The ACS is an important new way to help community planners, government agencies and the private sector understand the changing demand for services.

For a free interactive CD-ROM with data from the demonstration sites or for more information about ACS, visit the Census Bureau's World-Wide Web site or call 1-888-456-7215 (e-mail:

Source: U.S. Census Bureau
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Created: December 8, 1999
Last Revised: June 14, 2010 at 01:38:53 PM