FAQ: American Community Survey

by Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio
December 14, 2010

For the first time, the U.S. Census Bureau is releasing data collected through its American Community Survey over a five-year period.

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Q: What is American Community Survey?

A: The American Community Survey is an ongoing survey that provides information about U.S. residents: age, race and ethnicity, income, education level and commuting habits -- just to name a few examples. The survey is sent out to about 3 million households each year. The survey is 11 pages long. A copy of it is here.

Q: How is the American Community Survey different from the census?

A: The survey replaces the long form of the census, which used to be sent along with the normal census forms to a sampling of households every 10 years. The survey contains detailed information that wasn't part of the 2010 census.

Q: What data is being released on Tuesday, Dec. 14?

A: For the first time ever, the U.S. Census Bureau is releasing five-year American Community Survey data. The data was collected over a five-year period from Jan. 1, 2005 through Dec. 31, 2009.

Q: When will 2010 census data be released?

A: We'll know by the end of this month how many people live in Minnesota, according to the latest census. That number will determine whether Minnesota is able to keep its eight U.S. House seats. Other states are growing at a faster pace than Minnesota, so it's possible the state could lose one seat. More specific data about how many people live in each city and town throughout Minnesota will be available in the spring. A few other pieces of information will be available then -- including age, race and type of housing -- but most of the detailed information will only be available from the American Community Survey.

Q: What's so special about the five-year American Community Survey data?

A: The Census Bureau has been releasing three-year and one-year data, but those data releases have only included larger population areas such as states and bigger cities or counties. The five-year data will have information about small towns across Minnesota -- data that hasn't been available since the 2000 census. Similarly, cities can work with the data to learn more about specific neighborhoods.

Q: How will the data be used?

A: The data will help state and local government officials plan for the future. The data may reveal certain policy areas that need attention. It can also show the effects policies have on people, allowing government officials to adjust their strategies if needed. The survey is also used to make decisions about transportation projects, schools, hospitals and other public infrastructure.

Q: Is the data reliable?

A: Some data won't be reliable for small geographical areas because the sample size is too small, resulting in large margins of error. But the American Community Survey was designed with this problem in mind. The survey is sent to larger percentages of residents in small communities. For example, one in three households might receive a survey in a small town instead of the national average of one in eight. That way, community leaders are still able to use much of the data from the survey.

Q: What are some of the data's limitations?

A: The American Community survey covers a lot of areas, but it doesn't ask people about religion. It can't, by law. And for the questions it does ask, the data can sometimes have large margins of error due to not enough sampling. Information about margins of error is available when looking up survey data.

Another problem with the five-year data is that it's difficult to make comparisons in time, because surveys were completed over a five-year period. The data can be compared to the 2000 census in many cases, but it's difficult to make reliable comparisons with one-year or three-year data. Because the data being released Dec. 14 was gathered both before and during the economic recession, it won't be easy to use the data to measure the recession's impacts.

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