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Decennial Census Data Delayed, But Useful Survey Figures Can’t Be Denied

TUESDAY, MAR 30, 2021

The first, much-delayed results of the 2020 Census, providing population counts by state, are expected to be released at the end of April. The release will be followed in mid-summer with more detailed data on race, ethnicity and age.

Many people will be disappointed by the results – not because of what they learn from the decennial headcount, but because of what they don’t know about it. That’s because the Census, which is often portrayed as a treasure trove of useful data, only has three essential function:

·         It determines how many seats will be allocated to each state in Congress through a process known as apportionment

·         It’s used to redraw legislative districts that comply with federal laws such as the Voting Rights Act.

·         It serves as the statistical foundation for virtually all important products created over the next decade by the Census Bureau.

Indeed, one of the most common misperceptions about the decennial Census is that it involves hours of filling out detailed, intrusive questions. But the decennial Census, taken once every 10 years, asks only seven questions: Name, most frequent residence, physical address, sex, age, ethnicity (Hispanic or non-Hispanic), and race.

These are important questions for a functioning democracy. But for businesses trying to find out more about potential customers, or officials attempting to design effective public policy, the Census is a distant second to the American Community Survey (ACS), which obtains data from a 20-page questionnaire filled out by 2.2 million households every year. That information is collated into two annual sets of ACS data: Single-year ACS estimates cover places with 65,000 or more people, and five-year estimates covering all U.S. geographies down to a block group level (defined as an area containing between 600 and 3,000 people).

The ACS uses decennial Census data to create population, age, and race/ethnicity baselines that are updated on an annual basis. While it begins by asking the same basic questions as the Census, the ACS provides estimates, rather than a physical count. Because so many households are quizzed, though, it has relatively low margins of error, especially at larger geographic areas like states and large cities.

ACS topics include:

·         Household type

·         Family relationships

·         Housing

·         Ancestry

·         Citizenship

·         Education attainment

·         Occupation

·         Native language

·         Health insurance

·         Disability

·         Veteran status

·         Commuting patterns

·         Income

All of these topics generally can be combined with different variables to obtain an extremely fine-grained demographic picture of an area. For example, ACS data could be used to determine the percentage of Hispanic renters living in housing built between 1950 and 1959 within a county. Or it could be used to estimate the percentage of Asian households in a neighborhood where English isn’t spoken at home. It could even provide a figure for the number of Korean War veterans of German ancestry in a state that make more than the national median household income.

Before the advent of the ACS in 2005, these figures were obtained from the decennial “long form” Census questionnaire, which was sent every 10 years to 1 in 6 U.S. households. The problem with the long form data, however, was twofold: It wasn’t released until two years after the Census was taken, making it instantly obsolete, and it was only updated once every decade, meaning that people often had to rely on data that was almost 10 years old.

The ACS data has become invaluable to policymakers; by one estimate, it’s responsible for directing as much as $1.5 trillion in federal spending. On the private sector, it’s the gold standard for understanding demographic changes. Hundreds of organizations rallied in 2012 to save the ACS when the House Republican majority voted to eliminate funding over baseless privacy concerns.

More recently, some of the nation’s largest trade organizations, ranging from the National Association of Homebuilders to the Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce, urged Congress to allow the Census Bureau to focus on an accurate decennial count that had been threatened by the coronavirus pandemic, rather than meeting statutory deadlines to release 2020 Census results.

“With every other survey in the U.S. built on the population totals from the decennial count, the severe trickle-down impact of an inaccurate 2020 Census would last for a whole decade,” representatives of 87 trade organizations said in the August 2020 letter. “The population and demographic data from these surveys are vital to businesses across America to promote economic development, identify potential customers and create jobs.”

Author: Frank Bass

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