The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS)
The American Community Survey (ACS), a mandatory survey administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, is sent to 3.5 million addresses every year and collects many useful demographic data — including education, occupation, income, ancestry/ethnicity, disability status, English-language proficiency, housing type and age, health insurance coverage, and commuting patterns — to an extent unavailable from any other source. This ongoing survey replaced the traditional Census long form in 2005.
The unique value of the ACS
- Most objective, reliable source of small area estimates on a broad range of social, demographic, economic, and housing characteristics. Moreover, the estimates are comparable for all areas, so that researchers can study detailed patterns and trends nationwide.
- Drives constant improvement and innovation of new technology and methodologies to make surveys, including the 2020 Census, more efficient and accurate.
- Provides the baseline for private and public sector survey and opinion research. ACS data ensure the accuracy, representativeness and proper weighting of statistical samples for the entire research profession.
Privacy and confidentiality
Opposition to the ACS, particularly its mandatory response requirement, stems in part from concerns about intrusive questions and the security of confidential information in the hands of government bureaucrats, but:
- The ACS and other surveys are interested in individuals only insofar as they represent broader aggregated segments of the population.
- The Census Bureau is a recognized global leader in confidentiality standards and safeguards, ensuring that no one can identify individual persons or households from its aggregated data products.
- Federal law prohibits using Census data for any use other than its original statistical purpose and prohibits any disclosure that would allow an individual or household to be identified. All Census Bureau employees are sworn to uphold the law and are subject to stiff criminal penalties (including fines and prison sentences) for revealing any individual census or ACS (or other survey) answers.
- Federal law, directly or indirectly, requires all of the information gathered in the ACS (i.e., Congress requested the data directly, or created a program that relies on data for implementation, enforcement, or monitoring). The same law also gives Congress the opportunity to review and object to any proposed topic in the census or ACS near the end of each decade; no one in Congress objected to the content of the ACS in 2007 or 2008, the last period of review.
Making response to the ACS voluntary
H.R. 1078 and S. 530 would make response to all but four ACS questions (name, contact information, date of response, and number of people living or staying at the same address) voluntary. Rep. Ted Poe’s amendment to 2013 CJS Appropriations, forbidding enforcement of the ACS mandate, passed the House by voice vote.
Absent the mandate, good response rates will require even more extensive time and money
- Making the ACS voluntary will increase costs, since the Census Bureau must devote more time and money to secure respondent cooperation through telephone and door-to-door interviewing (both more costly than responses received through the mail or online) and achieve the statistical reliability necessary to continue producing estimates for small areas and smaller population groups or subsets of groups.
- A 2003 Census field test of voluntary response saw mail response rates drop by more than 20 percent and the survey’s cost increase by more than 30 percent.
- Current (voluntary) surveys in the U.S. are lucky to get even a 10 percent response rate.
- The editors of National Review magazine shared their support for the ACS in June 2012.
- Conservative columnist George Will supported keeping the ACS mandatory in his column on July 12, 2013.