Release of new Census data marks important milestone

By Thomas J. Billitteri

In the past decade, the Census Bureau made an important change in the way it collects and disseminates demographic, housing and economic data. That change has been bearing fruit since the middle of the past decade, but today the bureau is releasing the first full roll out of the new data sets.

As the CQ Researcher noted in its report last spring on the 2010 Census, to help improve response rates to the decennial count, the bureau eliminated the detailed “long form” survey for the 2010 enumeration and replaced it with a short 10-question form. To gather detailed information about the American population, the bureau launched a survey early in the 2000s called the American Community Survey (ACS) designed to produce a steady flow of “rolling” socioeconomic data that will be released in yearly, three-year and five-year estimates. The bureau has been releasing major results from that survey since 2005, producing more detailed tables as the rolling samples accumulated. Today the first ACS five-year data are being published for “small areas,” such as census tracts, or small governmental jurisdictions.

Researchers have been awaiting the information with perhaps a mix of anticipation and a bit of trepidation. Anticipation because the data will provide a richly detailed portrait of the American population. Trepidation because the “rolling” method of collecting the information is new, forcing researchers to grapple with data that are different than the 10-year figures from the traditional long-form questionnaires.

For background on the technical, policy and political dimensions of the 2010 Census, see Thomas J. Billitteri, “Census Controversy,” CQ Researcher [subscription needed], May 14, 2010. And for a new, comprehensive guide to understanding and using the American Community Survey by CQ Press, see