GWIPP HOME

American Community Survey (ACS), U.S. Census Bureau – References and Resources

Prepared by Andrew Reamer, Research Professor; Kari Nelson, Research Assistant; and Katherine Hartman, Research Assistant

Introduction

At the direction of Congress, the U.S. Census Bureau has conducted the American Community Survey (ACS) on a monthly basis since 2005.  The ACS replaces the decennial census “long form,” which was in use from 1960 to 2000.  

As of late 2012, the ACS has provided one-year estimates (2005-2011) of the demographic, economic, social, and housing characteristics of all U.S. geographic areas with 60,000 or more residents. For areas with 20,000 people or less, the bureau has produced rolling sets of five-year estimates (2005-2009, 2006-2010, and 2007-2011).  In addition, the agency regularly publishes subject-specific reports, with geographic detail, based on ACS data.

Over the past several years, there has been a significant amount of political discussion and legislative activity regarding ACS implementation. In particular, several members of the U.S. House of Representatives have introduced legislation to eliminate the ACS or make it voluntary. To help inform this discussion, this webpage provides references and resources on the following topics:

American Community Survey Basics

Return to the Top of the Page

Uses of the American Community Survey

American Community Survey: Uses and Users, Andrew Reamer, December 11, 2012

This compilation outlines the multiple uses of ACS data for public purposes, business development, research, and journalism.

ACS Reports on State and Metropolitan Areas, Katherine Hartman, April 9, 2013

Workshop on the Benefits (and Burdens) of the American Community Survey, Committee on National Statistics, National Academy of Sciences, June 14–15, 2012

Surveying for Dollars: The Role of the American Community Survey in the Geographic Distribution of Federal Funds, Andrew Reamer and Rachel Carpenter, Metropolitan Policy Program, The Brookings Institution, July 2010

Directly or indirectly, the ACS guides the annual distribution of over $400 billion in federal domestic assistance to states, localities, and residents. Examples of program areas include health, transportation, education, criminal justice, economic and workforce development, and emergency planning.

State Tax and Expenditure Limits- 2010, Bert Waisanen, National Conference of State Legislatures, 2010

Twenty-four states have placed constraints on state taxes and/or expenditures based on state individual income and/or population figures. Both of these figures are calculated based on ACS data. Thus, 24 state legislatures rely on the ACS to determine their annual state budgets.

Return to the Top of the Page

Concerns about the House of Representatives’ Prohibitions on the Conduct of the ACS

Articles in Response to House Actions Regarding the American Community Survey, May, 2012 - January 2013, Compiled by Kari Nelson and Katherine Hartman, George Washington Institute of Public Policy.

Return to the Top of the Page

House Appropriations Committee Report Language in Support of the ACS

FY2004 House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science Report: "The Committee supports the Administration’s efforts to collect long-form data on an on-going basis rather than waiting for once-a-decade decennial long-form data."

FY2005 House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science Report: "The Committee strongly supports the Administration’s efforts to collect long-form data on an on-going basis rather than waiting for once-a-decade decennial long-form data."

FY2006 House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science Report: "The Committee is steadfast in its support of the Census Bureau and the Administration’s efforts to collect long-form data on an on-going basis rather than waiting for once a-decade decennial long-form data.”

FY2007 House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science Report: "The Committee recommendation prioritizes funding associated with the American Community Survey as well as the 2010 decennial census." and, "The Committee is steadfast in its support of the Census Bureau and the Administration’s efforts to collect long-form data on an on-going basis rather than waiting for once a-decade decennial long-form data."

FY2008 House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science Report: "The Committee fully supports the Census Bureau’s efforts to collect long-form data on an on-going basis rather than waiting for once a-decade decennial long-form data."

Return to the Top of the Page

Historical Basis of the American Community Survey

The ACS is the fifth iteration of the unbroken tradition, from the 1790 Census forward, of including questions in the decennial census for purposes beyond “bare enumeration” and requiring each household to provide a complete, accurate response.
Role of the Founding Fathers

James Madison proposes an expansion of 1790 Census questions to include age, gender, and occupation (see schedule).

As president of the American Philosophical Society, Vice-President Jefferson asked Congress to broaden the 1800 Census to include additional age cohorts and questions on citizenship, country of birth, and occupation.

The Census Act of 1810 continued to expand upon the information collected in the previous population censuses and added the first census of manufactures.

Presidential Statements on the Use of Decennial Census Data for Non-Apportionment Purposes (1805 – 2010), selected by Andrew Reamer, June 4, 2012

A compilation of presidential statements from Thomas Jefferson to Barack Obama that cite socioeconomic census data, extol their value, or request that Congress include additional questions for public policy purposes.

Census Schedules, 1790-1890: Excerpts from "A Report of the Superintendent of the Census, Together with the Draft of a Bill, In Response to Senate Resolution of February 16, 1891"

Excerpts from this report show the evolution of census schedules and the information collected therein between the years of 1790-1890.

History of Socioeconomic Questions on the ACS (1850 – 2010)Rachel Carpenter, Metropolitan Policy Program, The Brookings Institution, July 2010

This table outlines the history of the socioeconomic questions asked in the ACS. Seven questions were asked in 1850.

Evolution of Mandatory Household Response to Census, 1790-2012, Compiled by Kari Nelson, Research Assistant

In 1790, the fine for failing to respond to the census and/or for providing false information on the census was $20. By 1976, the fines had risen only moderately to $100 for failure to provide information and $500 for providing false information. In the 1980's, however, sentencing reform laws standardized the fines for federal infractions to a maximum of $5,000, overriding the range in the census law.
Innovations in Census Data Collection for Public Policy—America’s Global Leadership

 

 

Return to the Top of the Page

Legal Basis for the ACS

The constitutional and statutory basis of the inclusion of, and mandatory response to, decennial census questions beyond “bare enumeration, ”including those on the ACS, have been provided by the congressional Government Accountability Office and the federal courts. In addition, Congress must review ACS questions once a decade and the Office of Management and Budget must review and approve each substantively new iteration of the ACS.

Government Accountability Office

The GAO was asked by Congress to assess the constitutionality of the Americn Community Survey (both in terms of its general administration as well as in it mandatory nature). It also was asked to assess the extent to which its questions overlapped with information collected by other agencies. GAO determines that the Census Bureau, per 13 U.S.C. §§ 141 and 193, has the legal authority to administer the ACS as well as to require citizens to complete it. Additionally, with only minor exceptions, the questions asked in the survey are not found to duplicate information collected by other agencies.

Court Findings

The district court rules that there is no basis upon which to declare the 2000 census unconstitutional based on the Fourth Amendment. The court indicates that the census does not infringe upon a citizen's right to privacy or speech.

The Supreme Court describes the Census as the "linchpin of the federal statistical system … collecting data on the characteristics of individuals, households, and housing units throughout the country."

The court rules that the household survey is within the Census Bureau's constitutional right to administer the census in a manner best fitting the needs of government per Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution which states, "The actual Enumeration shall be made [every ten years] in such Manner as [the Congress] shall by Law direct." Thus, its administration does not violate Little's right to privacy.

The court upholds the conviction of Rickenbacker for refusing to complete a household survey as a part of the decennial census, supporting the government's legal authority to collect the survey information and to require citizens to complete it, under penalty of prosecution. The court finds that the survey is not a violation of fourth amendment privacy rights. In their court report, the justices state, "The authority to gather reliable statistical data reasonably related to governmental purposes and functions is a necessity if modern government is to legislate intelligently and effectively."

The court finds: “Respecting the suggestion that the power of congress is limited to a census of the population, it should be noticed that at stated periods congress is directed to make an apportionment, and to take a census to furnish the necessary information therefor, and that certain representation and taxation shall be related to that census. This does not prohibit the gathering of other statistics, if ‘necessary and proper,’ for the intelligent exercise of other powers enumerated in the constitution.”

The Supreme Court rules that Congress has the power and authority to make laws governing the federation, even if those laws are not specifically afforded in the Constitution. Additionally, Congress has the power and authority to create laws implementing aspects of the Constitution (such as the census) in whichever ways it sees most fit to govern and administer the Nation.

Congressional Review

Subjects and Questions Planned for the 2010 Census and American Community Survey: Federal Legislative and Program Uses, U.S. Census Bureau, 2007 and 2008

By law, the ACS is considered to be a program of the decennial census. Thus, per 13 USC § 141, it is subject to congressional review.

Review by the Office of Management and Budget

This webpage provides a history of OMB's review and approval process for the ACS.

Return to the Top of the Page

Impacts of Terminating the ACS or Making It Voluntary

Hearing: Census: Planning Ahead for 2020, Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, U.S. Senate, July 18, 2012

Hearing: The Economic Impact of Ending or Reducing Funding for the American Community Survey and other Government Statistics, Joint Economic Committee, U.S. Congress, June 19, 2012

Census memo on costs and workload implications of a voluntary ACS, June 23, 2011

The Census Bureau provides an update of 2003 findings regarding the effect of making the ACS voluntary for survey costs and data quality. The memo indicates that to maintain current data reliability, some combination of increased sample size and increased nonresponse follow-up is necessary. In addition, it notes that if the Census Bureau is not given the means to compensate for the reduced response rates, ACS data quality would not be sufficiently reliable for use.

"The Pros and Cons of Making the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey Voluntary," Hearing of Subcommittee on Health Care, District of Columbia, Census, and the National Archives, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, March 6, 2012, testimony of:

“Imagining a Census Survey Without a Mandate,” Carl Bialik, Wall Street Journal, March 30 2012

This Wall Street Journal blog details the problems with making the ACS voluntary. It is not just that fewer people will respond, but also that those who don't respond likely are different in important ways from those who do, thus making accurate estimates about the overall population difficult. For instance, it is known that certain populations typically have lower response rates than others- minorities, immigrants, the poor, and very wealthy all have significantly lower response rates, even on the mandatory survey, often resulting in these populations being undercounted.

Why Are Some Census Surveys Mandatory?,” Robert Groves, Director, Census Bureau, June 4, 2012

Director Groves of the Census Bureau explains that the primary reason for requiring individual's participation in the ACS is to convey the importance that the survey has for the Nation. Once people understand its importance, most readily provide the information requested.

“Should the American Community Survey Be Voluntary?,” D’Vera Cohn, Pew Research Center, July 6, 2010

This post from the Pew Research Center outlines the threats that making the ACS a voluntary survey would have for data quality and program cost.

Return to the Top of the Page

Reference Materials – Opposition to the ACS

Census Reform Act of 2013, introduced by Rep. Jeff Duncan (SC-3), April 18, 2013

Amendments, Discussion, and Votes in House of Representatives, May 9, 2012

Resolution Concerning the American Community Survey, Republican National Committee, August 6, 2010