American Community Survey: Demographic Characteristics at Your Fingertips

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The U.S. Census Bureau is anyone’s go-to source when it comes to national and local U.S. statistics. It has anything and everything you can think of about the U.S. population. What U.S. county has the greatest number of people claiming Nepali ancestry? What is the average mortgage payment in my ZIP code? What is the average travel time to work in Wyoming?

You get the idea. The Census Bureau has a lot to offer, but there is one dataset in particular that is likely to provide answers to many of the different socioeconomic questions you have: the American Community Survey (ACS).

The breakdown

The ACS is an annual survey program that collects and provides key indicators about the American public. It covers a multitude of topics such as employment, housing costs, health insurance coverage, and so on. Think of it as the annual decennial census – only instead of collecting basic information like race and sex, the ACS collects more detailed characteristics like average rent paid, educational attainment, and much more. ACS statistics are released in batches beginning typically in the fall following the year of reference. These batches are divided into the 1-year, 1-year supplemental, and 5-year estimates. But what do these mean exactly?

ACS Estimates Definition How to use it
1-year estimates Data collected over a 12 month period, e.g. January 1, 2016-December 31, 2016. Best used when analyzing areas with populations of 65,000 or more and when currency is more important than precision.
1-year supplemental estimates Data collected over a 12 month period. Best used when analyzing areas with populations of 20,000 or more and when smaller geographies are not available in the regular 1-year estimates release
5-year estimates Data collected over a 60 month period, e.g. January 1, 2012-December 31, 2016. Best used when you’re more concerned with precision than currency and when analyzing any size population. These are the best estimates to use when analyzing small population areas.

For a complete breakdown, check out the Census Bureau.

So what’s the best way to browse all the ACS statistics?

The best entry point to find the ACS statistics you want is American FactFinder, a warehouse of statistical information from surveys implemented by the Census Bureau (including the ACS). It provides multiple ways to get the information you need – from a simple location search to a mass download option. Be sure to select the American Community Survey as the specific Census program you would like to view. As I mentioned, the ACS collects information on a diverse number of topics compared to other Census surveys, which typically focus on one topic like the American Housing Survey. The ACS therefore gives you more bang for your buck! However, take note: ACS estimates are based on a smaller sample of the U.S. population than the traditional decennial census. Therefore its estimates carry a higher margin of error or are less accurate, but are timelier than the decennial census.

For more information, visit the Census Bureau.

To learn more about SAGE Stats, click here.

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