American Community Survey

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American Community Survey
United States Census Bureau Wordmark.svg
Country United States
InauguratedJanuary 2005;13 years ago (2005-01)
Participants3.5 million households/year

The American Community Survey (ACS) is an ongoing survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. It regularly gathers information previously contained only in the long form of the decennial census, such as ancestry, educational attainment, income, language proficiency, migration, disability, employment, and housing characteristics. These data are used by many public-sector, private-sector, and not-for-profit stakeholders to allocate funding, track shifting demographics, plan for emergencies, and learn about local communities. [1] Sent to approximately 295,000 addresses monthly (or 3.5 million per year), it is the largest household survey that the Census Bureau administers. [2]

United States Census decenial census mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution

The United States Census is a decennial census mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, which states: "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States ... according to their respective Numbers .... The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years." Section 2 of the 14th Amendment states: "Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed." The United States Census Bureau is responsible for the United States Census. The Bureau of the Census is part of the United States Department of Commerce.

Americans with disabilities are one of the largest minority groups in the United States. Although the US does not have universal healthcare, Americans with disabilities can generally find adequate levels of subsidized support from a variety of sources, generally at the regional level. While most rural areas — especially in the Great Plains region — have little or no government-organized medical support infrastructure for the permanently disabled indigent population, most major urban centers have healthcare systems. The rights of Americans with disabilities are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The public sector is the part of the economy composed of both public services and public enterprises.



The United States Constitution (Article I, Section II) requires an enumeration of the population every ten years and “in such Manner as they [Congress] shall by Law direct.” From the first census in 1790, legislators understood that the census should collect basic demographic information beyond the number of people in the household. James Madison first proposed including questions in the census to “enable them to adapt the public measures to the particular circumstances of the community.” Such knowledge collected with each census, he said, “would give them an opportunity of marking the progress of the society." [3] The number and type of questions included in censuses since 1790 have reflected current American societal trends and the growing nation’s expanded data needs. [4]

Article One of the United States Constitution Portion of the US Constitution regarding Congress

Article One of the United States Constitution establishes the legislative branch of the federal government, the United States Congress. Under Article One, Congress is a bicameral legislature consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Article One grants Congress various enumerated powers and the ability to pass laws "necessary and proper" to carry out those powers. Article One also establishes the procedures for passing a bill and places various limits on the powers of Congress and the states.

By 1940, advancements in statistical methods enabled the Census Bureau to start asking a sample of the population a subset of additional detailed questions without unduly increasing cost or respondent burden. [5] In subsequent decades, questions that had previously been asked of all respondents, as well as new questions, moved to the subsample questionnaire form. As that form grew longer than the census form sent to most households, it became known as the census “long form.”

Following the 1960 Census, federal, state and local government officials, as well as those working in the private sector, began demanding more timely long-form-type data. Lawmakers representing rural districts claimed they were at a data disadvantage, unable to self-fund additional surveys of their populations. [6] [7] Congress explored the creation of a mid-decade census, holding hearings and even authorizing a mid-decade census in 1976, but not funding it. [8] [9] [10]

1960 United States Census

The Eighteenth United States Census, conducted by the Census Bureau, determined the resident population of the United States to be 179,323,175, an increase of 18.5 percent over the 151,325,798 persons enumerated during the 1950 Census. This was the first census in which all states recorded a population of over 200,000.

Efforts to obtain data on a more frequent basis began again after the 1990 Census, when it became clear that the more burdensome long form was depressing overall census response rates and jeopardizing the accuracy of the count. At Congress's request, the Census Bureau developed and tested a new design to obtain long-form data. U.S. statistician Leslie Kish had introduced the concept of a rolling sample (or continuous measurement) design in 1981. [11] This design featured ongoing, monthly data collection aggregated on a yearly basis, enabling annual data releases. By combining multiple years of this data, the Census Bureau could release "period" estimates to produce estimates for smaller areas. After a decade of testing, it launched as the American Community Survey in 2005, replacing the once-a-decade census long form. [12] [13]

Leslie Kish was a Hungarian-American statistician and survey methodologist.


The ACS has an initial sample of approximately 3.5 million housing unit addresses and group quarters in the United States. The Census Bureau selects a random sample of addresses to be included in the ACS. Each address has about a 1-in-480 chance of being selected in a given month, and no address should be selected more than once every five years. Data is collected by internet, mail, telephone interviews and in-person interviews. Approximately one third of those who do not respond to the survey by mail or telephone are randomly selected for in-person interviews. About 95 percent of households across all response modes ultimately respond. [14]

Like the decennial census, ACS responses are confidential. Every employee at the Census Bureau takes an oath of nondisclosure and is sworn for life to not disclose identifying information. Violations can result in a 5-year prison sentence and/or $250,000 fine. [15] Under 13 U.S.C.   § 9, census responses are "immune from legal process" and may not "be admitted as evidence or used for any purpose in any action, suit, or other judicial or administrative proceeding."

Data availability

Sample of an American Community Survey data table Sample ACS data table.png
Sample of an American Community Survey data table

The Census Bureau aggregates individual ACS responses (i.e. microdata) into estimates at many geographic summary levels. Among these summary levels are legal and administrative entities such as states, counties, cities, and congressional districts, as well as statistical entities such as metropolitan statistical areas, tracts, block groups, and census designated places. Estimates for census blocks are not available from ACS. [16]

In order to balance geographic resolution, temporal frequency, statistical significance, and respondent privacy, ACS estimates released each year are aggregated from responses received in the previous calendar year or previous five calendar years. The Census Bureau provides guidance for data users about which data set to use when analyzing different population and geography sizes. [17]

From 2007 to 2013, 3-year estimates were available for areas with 20,000 people or more. This data product was discontinued in 2015 due to budget cuts. [18] The last 3-year release was the 2011-2013 ACS 3-year estimates.

Current data releases include:

Within the last 10 years, the American Community Survey has collected and supplied all data at local levels. This was a large breakthrough in the survey because it allows the American people more individualized data on a community level as opposed to extrapolating from data collected over a larger area. It has also provided unparalleled information to be more accessible for local government planning and financing. The increase in data availability on a smaller scale is a necessary and welcome addition to the ACS. [20] While the addition is welcome, it does not always accurately reflect a smaller population. Many conclusions for local data is averaged from various information across the area, and while useful, it is not always an adequate representation. [21]

ACS estimates are available via a number of online data tools. [22] American Fact Finder (AFF) is the primary tool for disseminating ACS data, allowing users to drill down to specific tables and geographies (starting with 2013 estimates, AFF also includes block group data). A selection of the most popular tables are shown in QuickFacts. Other tools include OnTheMap for Emergency Management, Census Business Builder and My Congressional District. My Tribal Area featuring 5-year estimates for federally recognized tribes, launched in 2017. The Summary File is the most detailed data source, and is available as a series of downloadable text files or through an application programming interface (API) for software developers.

Custom cross-tabulations of ACS questions can be made using the Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS), freely accessible through the Census Bureau website and Integrated Public Use Microdata Series. PUMS data contain responses to every question from a sample of respondents. To protect respondent privacy, PUMS data are anonymized and only available down to areas containing 100,000 people or more known as Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMAs). [23] The analysis of all ACS microdata without the sampling and anonymization in PUMS is restricted to qualified researchers at secure Federal Statistical Research Data Centers (FSRDCs). [24]



American Community Survey data provide important information that cannot be found elsewhere. The federal government, as well as various businesses, researchers, and local governments use ACS data for planning and decision-making purposes. ACS data are used by public and business decision-makers to more clearly identify issues and opportunities and more effectively allocate scarce resources to address them. [25] [26] [27] In Fiscal Year 2008, 184 federal domestic assistance programs used ACS-related datasets to help guide the distribution of $416 billion, 29 percent of all federal assistance. [28]

The American Community Survey is authorized by 13 U.S.C. § 141 and 13 U.S.C. § 193. [29] Federal courts have held that the long form is constitutional.

In 2000, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas ruled that the 2000 Census and the 2000 Census questions did not violate the Fourth Amendment or other constitutional provisions as alleged by plaintiffs. The court said responses to census questions are not a violation of a citizen's right to privacy or speech. [30]

The court's decision was later affirmed by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied petition for writ of certiorari. [31] Additionally, a number of other courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have consistently held through the years that the census and the questions in the census are authorized by both the Constitution and statute. [32]

In 2002, the GAO confirmed that the Census Bureau has authority to conduct the survey and "require responses from the public." All individual American Community Survey responses are kept private and are used (along with other ACS responses) to create estimates of demographic characteristics for various geographies. Because of data swapping techniques to ensure confidentiality, it is impossible to figure out how individual people responded based on data from published ACS estimates. [33]


Opponents of the American Community Survey disagree with the court’s findings about its constitutionality. They believe the survey asks for more information, and at a higher frequency, than the simple enumeration required by Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. Despite the Government Accountability Office's conclusion that the Census Bureau has the authority to conduct the survey under 13 U.S.C.   § 141 and 13 U.S.C.   § 193, several U.S. representatives have challenged the ACS as unauthorized by the Census Act and a violation of the Right to Financial Privacy Act. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who opposes the ACS, said of it that the founding fathers of the United States "never authorized the federal government to continuously survey the American people.” [34]

Those who decline to complete the survey may receive visits to their homes from Census Bureau personnel. Because it is a mandatory survey, it is governed by federal laws that could impose a fine of as much as $5,000 for refusing to participate.

To date, no person has been prosecuted for refusing to answer the ACS. [35] Former Director of the Census Bureau Kenneth Prewitt remarked that the Department of Commerce is "not an enforcement agency" and that "the Department of Justice would have to do the prosecution, and we don't recommend that." [36] The Census Bureau prefers to gain cooperation by convincing respondents of the importance of participation, while acknowledging that the mandate improves response rates (and thus accuracy) and lowers the annual cost of survey administration by more than $90 million. [37]

In 2014, the Census Project, a collaboration of pro-Census business and industry associations, gathered signatures from 96 national and local organizations urging the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to reject a proposal to make the American Community Survey voluntary. [38] Signers included the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors and the US Conference of Mayors. The letter cited results from a congressionally mandated test of a voluntary ACS that found that mail response rates would drop “dramatically,” by more than 20 percentage points. [39] The resulting loss in quality and reliability would essentially eliminate data for 41 percent of U.S. counties, small cities, towns and villages, many school districts, neighborhoods, remote areas, and American Indian reservations. [40]

Other opposition to the ACS has been in response to the accuracy, reliability, and accessibility of the data. The data collected, once released to the public, has been tampered with to keep confidentiality therefore potentially skewing the data a certain way. [ citation needed ] While the original data is possible to access, to do so one must have certain status, money, or both.[ citation needed ] Due to these potential inaccuracies in publicly available data, there is opposition to the reliability of using the ACS. [ citation needed ] The practicality of using this data comes into question once it has been changed, even if it is for privacy reasons. [41] In regards to the accuracy of the data, there are some people not taken into account on the ACS.

See also

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  1. Eberstadt, Nicholas; Nunn, Ryan; Schanzenbach, Diane W.; Strain, Michael. In Order That They Might Rest Their Arguments on Facts: The Vital Role of Government-Collected Data.
  2. US Census Bureau. "ACS Information Guide". p. 8. Retrieved July 31, 2015.
  3. "The Founder's Constitution". The University of Chicago Press. Retrieved June 19, 2017.
  4. U.S. Census Bureau. "Through The Decades: Index of Questions" . Retrieved June 19, 2017.
  5. U.S. Census Bureau. "1940 (Population) – History – U.S. Census Bureau" . Retrieved June 19, 2017.
  6. "The American Community Survey: A Replacement for the Long Form? United States House Subcommittee on the Census of the Committee of Government Reform, 106th Congress (2000)" (PDF). Retrieved June 19, 2017.
  7. "Mid-Decade Census, Part 1: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Census and Statistics, 87th Congress (1961)" . Retrieved June 19, 2017.
  8. "Mid-Decade Census: Hearings before the United States House Subcommittee on Census and Statistics of the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service, 89th Congress (1965)" . Retrieved June 19, 2017.
  9. "Mid-Decade Census: Hearings before the United States House Subcommittee on Census and Statistics of the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service, 92nd Congress, first session on proposals for a mid-decade census of population and housing (1971)" . Retrieved June 19, 2017.
  10. "13 U.S.C. 141(d)" . Retrieved June 19, 2017.
  11. Alexander, Charles. "Still Rolling: Leslie Kish's Rolling Samples and the American Community Survey" (PDF). U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved June 19, 2017.
  12. US Census Bureau. "American Community Survey: Design and Methodology (PDF) p. 2-1" (PDF). Retrieved June 19, 2017.
  13. "ACS Design and Methodology. Chapter 2: Program History" (PDF). U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved June 19, 2017.
  14. US Census Bureau. "Response Rates". Retrieved May 19, 2017.
  15. US Census Bureau. "Is My Privacy Protected?". Retrieved July 31, 2015.
  16. 1 2 3 US Census Bureau. "Areas Published". Retrieved July 31, 2015.
  17. U.S. Census Bureau. "When to Use 1-Year, 3-Year or 5-Year Data". Retrieved May 24, 2017.
  18. Poole, Ken. "The ACS 3-year Demographic Estimates Are History". APDU: The Association of Public Data Users. Retrieved July 31, 2015.
  19. US Census Bureau. "American Community Survey Supplemental Data". Retrieved May 24, 2017.
  20. Glenn, Ezra Haber (May 12, 2015). "Estimates with Errors and Errors with Estimates: Using the R 'ACS' Package for Analysis of American Community Survey Data". Rochester, NY.
  21. Spielman, Seth; Singleton, Alex (September 3, 2015). "Studying Neighborhoods Using Uncertain Data from the American Community Survey: A Contextual Approach". Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 105: 1003–1025. doi:10.1080/00045608.2015.1052335.
  22. US Census Bureau. "Data Tools Chart". Retrieved July 31, 2015.
  23. US Census Bureau. "About PUMS". Retrieved July 31, 2015.
  24. US Census Bureau. "Federal Statistical Research Data Centers". Retrieved August 11, 2015.
  25. Census Project. "Letter to Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Science, Justice and Related Agencies 3/17/16" (PDF). Retrieved August 7, 2017.
  26. American Economic Association. "The American Community Survey is Essential" (PDF). Retrieved August 7, 2017.
  27. National Retail Federation. "The Greatest Survey You've Never Heard Of" . Retrieved August 7, 2017.
  28. Brookings Institution. "Surveying for Dollars: the Role of the American Community Survey in the Geographic Distribution of Federal Funds" . Retrieved July 14, 2017.
  29. US Government Accountability Office. "U.S. GAO – Legal Authority for American Community Survey, B-289852".
  30. Morales v. Daley, 116 F. Supp. 2d 801, 820 (S.D. Tex. 2000) " . . . [I]t is clear that the degree to which these questions intrude upon an individual's privacy is limited, given the methods used to collect the census data and the statutory assurance that the answers and attribution to an individual will remain confidential. The degree to which the information is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests has been found to be significant. A census of the type of Census 2000 has been taken every ten years since the first census in 1790. Such a census has been thought to be necessary for over two hundred years. There is no basis for holding that it is not necessary in the year 2000."
  31. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the District Court decision on October 10, 2001, 275 F.3d 45. The U.S. Supreme Court denied petition for writ of certiorari on February 19, 2002, 534 U.S. 1135. No published opinions were filed with these rulings.
  32. As early as 1870, the Supreme Court characterized as unquestionable the power of Congress to require both an enumeration and the collection of statistics in the census. The Legal Tender Cases, Tex.1870; 12 Wall., U.S., 457, 536, 20 L.Ed. 287. In 1901, a district court said the Constitution’s census clause (Art. 1, Sec. 2, Clause 3) is not limited to a count of the population and “does not prohibit the gathering of other statistics, if ‘necessary and proper,’ for the intelligent exercise of other powers enumerated in the constitution, and in such case there could be no objection to acquiring this information through the same machinery by which the population is enumerated.” United States v. Moriarity, 106 F. 886, 891 (S.D.N.Y.1901). All of these decisions are consistent with the Supreme Court’s recent description of the census as the “linchpin of the federal statistical system ... collecting data on the characteristics of individuals, households, and housing units throughout the country.” Dept. of Commerce v. U.S. House of Representatives, 525 U.S. 316, 341 (1999)."
  33. US Government Accountability Office. "U.S. GAO – Legal Authority for American Community Survey, B-289852".
  34. "None of Your Business!" by Ron Paul
  35. Selby, W. Gardner. "Americans must answer U.S. Census Bureau survey by law, though agency hasn't prosecuted since 1970" . Retrieved July 31, 2015.
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  37. US Census Bureau. "Mandatory vs. Voluntary Methods". Retrieved July 31, 2015.
  38. The Census Project. "Letter to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee" (PDF). Retrieved July 14, 2017.
  39. Navarro, Alfredo; King, Karen E.; Starsinc, Michael. "Comparison of the American Community Survey Voluntary Versus Mandatory Estimates". U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved July 14, 2017.
  40. The Census Project. "Letter to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee" (PDF). Retrieved July 14, 2017.
  41. Kinney, Satkartar K.; Karr, Alan (February 1, 2017). "Public-Use vs. Restricted-Use: An Analysis Using the American Community Survey". Rochester, NY.