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American Community Survey Blog – January 2023
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American Community Survey Blog – January 2023

An accurate decennial census count is important for community and business decision-making. The census count creates data estimates touching nearly every facet of a taxpayer’s life, ranging from average work commutes to how many people have access to broadband. While the census is the basis for such statistics, it is obvious that counting people cannot provide such in-depth knowledge alone. The census has a partner: the American Community Survey (ACS).

In December 2022, data for the American Community Survey 2017-2021 5-Year Estimates was released. On January 26th, the 5-Year Microdata and 1-Year Data Profiles will be available.

What is the American Community Survey (ACS)?

Each month, 3.5 million people receive an ACS survey. The survey collects data points such as:

  • Social and economic characteristics, including employment status, income, and educational attainment;
  • Housing characteristics, including homeownership, age of housing, and the presence of indoor plumbing; and
  • Demographic characteristics, including age and sex.

The survey asks many questions but each for good reason. When applied to the decennial census count, the ACS responses allow the U.S. Census Bureau to calculate 5-Year and 1-Year estimates that describe localities, states, and the nation. The 5-Year estimates have a larger sample size, compiling five years of surveys, encouraging greater accuracy, and allowing for reviewer of smaller geographic areas. The 1-Year estimates are useful for determining year by year trends, but due to the smaller sample size, it best reflects larger geographic areas.

The 5-Year and 1-Year estimates are released as data profiles and microdata. Data profiles are estimates that the U.S. Census Bureau releases as easy to navigate tables. Microdata is raw data that data users can use to find connections between data points. For example, if a data user wanted to know how many persons drive a car, live in a house, and have a doctorate degree, they would not find it in a table. The data user would need to compile microdata to find the statistic they seek.

The ACS is the most comprehensive source of detailed population data and is available for use by all. Click here to review data points that may be important to you.

How Does the ACS Help My Community or Business?

The ACS checks the pulse of America. With a yearly release of estimates, the ACS is capable of monitoring improvement. For example, if a state wanted to increase the number of residents with a college degree, they can compare census data from previous years to see if they are on track to reaching their goal. This ability to track change over time is especially important following disruptive events, such as pandemics or natural disasters, because it can help communities determine whether they have successfully recovered from the event.

The ACS also provides benchmarks with which communities can compare themselves. Let’s return to the example of educational attainment. Educational attainment is important for attracting high-wage industries that require a specialized workforce. Due to the ACS, Florida decision-makers can compare the state’s attainment to neighboring states to determine whether their standing is competitive or needs support. In the absence of comparable benchmarks, decision-makers could set unrealistic goals or fail to realize opportunities to strengthen the economy or wellbeing of their communities.

Similarly, the ACS helps businesses with decision-making, such as where to locate or what products to sell. If a toy shop is considering a new location, they would likely be more inclined to choose an area with a high number of toddlers rather than a high number of retirees. If an individual is considering opening a boutique with luxury clothing, they should look to ACS data to identify whether nearby residents have a large enough income to be loyal shoppers. To learn more about how communities and businesses rely upon ACS estimates, read the Florida TaxWatch report “Looking Back at Census 2020: What Florida’s Business and Community Leaders Need to Know.” 

What Should I Do If I Receive a Survey?

The odds of receiving an ACS survey are small, but if you receive the survey, complete the survey. The survey is not only required by law, but it is also a civic duty that provides valuable information to community and business decision-makers. If you refrain from answering your survey, the U.S. Census Bureau will have a smaller sample size upon which to base estimates, risking the accuracy of their data. The survey is confidential, and the U.S. Census Bureau prioritizes privacy. No one will have access to your survey, nor will they be able to find identify your identity from the results.

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