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Monday, March 4, 2013

The American Community Survey: Development, Implementation, and Issues for Congress

Jennifer D. Williams
Specialist in American National Government

The American Community Survey (ACS), implemented nationwide in 2005 and 2006, is the U.S. Bureau of the Census’s (Census Bureau’s) replacement for the decennial census long form, which, from 1940 to 2000, gathered detailed socioeconomic and housing data from a representative population sample in conjunction with the once-a-decade count of all U.S. residents. Unlike the long form, with its approximately 17% sample of U.S. housing units in 2000, the ACS is a “rolling sample” or “continuous measurement” survey of about 295,000 housing units a month, totaling about 3.54 million a year (an increase from the 2005 to 2011 sample size of about 250,000 housing units monthly, totaling about 3 million annually). The data are aggregated to produce one-year, three-year, and five-year estimates. As were the long-form data, ACS estimates are used in program formulas that determine the annual allocation of certain federal funds, currently more than $450 billion, to states and localities.

The ACS has several other features in common with the long form: the topics covered are largely the same; responses are mandatory; and the Bureau may follow up, by telephone or in-person visits, with households that do not submit completed questionnaires. The ACS is conducted under the authority of Title 13, Sections 141 and 193, of the United States Code; so was the long form. Title 44, Section 3501, of the Code, the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, and its implementing regulations require federal agencies to obtain Office of Management and Budget approval before collecting information from the public. On the long form, the Bureau could gather only data that were mandatory for particular programs, required by federal law or regulations, or needed for the Bureau’s operations. Likewise, the ACS can collect only necessary information.

The limited ACS sample size makes longer cumulations of data necessary to generate reliable estimates for less populous areas. Yearly averages have been available since 2006, but only for geographic areas with 65,000 or more people. The first three-year period estimates were released in 2008 for areas with at least 20,000 people. The first five-year averages became available in 2010 for areas from the most populous to those with fewer than 20,000 people. A concern noted by some data users is that the ACS sample size results in less-detailed five-year data products for smaller geographic areas—census tracts and block groups—than were available every 10 years from the long form. A related issue is data quality, especially for small areas.

An ongoing concern for some Members of Congress and their constituents is that responses to the ACS are required. The Bureau’s 2003 test of a voluntary versus mandatory ACS showed a 20.7- percentage-point drop in the overall ACS response rate when answers were optional. The Bureau estimated in 2003 and 2004 that if the survey became voluntary, maintaining data reliability would necessitate increasing the planned annual sample size from about 3 million to 3.7 million housing units, at an additional cost of $59.2 million per year in FY2005 dollars (re-estimated at $66.5 million per year, as of FY2011). In the 112
th Congress, H.R. 931 and S. 3079 proposed making almost all ACS responses optional. The Poe amendment to H.R. 5326, the House-passed Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2013 (CJS), would have prohibited the use of funds to enforce a penalty for not answering the ACS. The Webster amendment to H.R. 5326 would have prohibited the use of funds to conduct the survey. The Senate did not take up H.R. 5326 or S. 2323, its FY2013 CJS appropriations bill, which had no provisions similar to the Poe and Webster amendments. P.L. 112-175, the Continuing Appropriations Resolution, 2013, was enacted on September 28, 2012, without mention of the ACS. It funds the Census Bureau at 0.612% above the FY2012 appropriations level until March 27, 2013, unless FY2013 CJS appropriations legislation is enacted before then.

Date of Report: February 20, 2013
Number of Pages: 26
Order Number: R41532
Price: $29.95

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