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Evaluating the American Community Survey: The ACS Content Review

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American Community Survey Brochure

Cross-post, U.S. Census Bureau's Director's Blog by John H. Thompson

Every month of every year, and in every county across the nation, a relatively small number of households receive notice that they have been randomly selected to receive the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

The American Community Survey, or ACS, is the lesser known part of the every-ten-year census. To produce more timely statistics between census years, the former “census long form” questions were moved to this rolling survey format after the 2000 Census.

Many of the detailed socio-economic and housing questions on the American Community Survey can trace their genesis back to the 19th century, some even earlier. James Madison, Father of the Constitution and fourth U.S. president, ensured that the Constitution authorized Congress to include questions in the census that provided the level of detail needed to effectively govern the new country.

“In order to accommodate our laws to the real situation of our constituents,” he explained, “we ought to be acquainted with that situation.”

Today, the American Community Survey provides the objective basis for the distribution of more than $400 billion in federal programming decisions. ACS statistics are used by all communities to more clearly plan for investments and services.

Quality ACS statistics are dependent on the participation of all households in the survey. The survey takes time to fill out, with more than 70 questions on dozens of topics.

That’s why we began a top-to-bottom review of the American Community Survey – to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the uses, justification, and merit of each question on the ACS. Is it possible to reduce the burden on households while still producing the quality information the nation needs?

We are asking federal agencies – the primary data users – to detail their specific data needs, especially as those needs relate to four particular questions on the survey: respondents’ income, disability status, journey to work and household plumbing facilities. We also are asking for details from state, local and tribal governments, along with the business community. We need to know if the American Community Survey is the only suitable vehicle to collect the information each question generates.

We are working with the Office of Management and Budget to establish criteria for evaluating all reported data uses. This will factor in elements such as whether the data are required by federal law, whether the data are needed to manage a required program, and whether the data are needed for small geographies. We encourage you to provide feedback about your or your organization’s data needs. Ultimately, the findings will form the basis of recommendations for the future of the survey. Our goal is that the ACS would provide the most useful information with the least amount of burden. To follow this process and sign up for updates, visit our ACS Content Review web page.

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