Celebrating 224 Years of Measuring America’s People, Places, and Economy

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Written by: John H. Thompson

During my swearing-in ceremony at the National Archives, I was able to see some of the “charters of freedom” housed there – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. On the eve of celebrating our national independence, I reflect on what struck me most, particularly Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution:

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States… according to their respective Numbers… The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years in such Manner as they shall by Law direct…”

The framers emphasized the importance of collecting timely statistics for our nation by the prominence of this first mention of what became the Census Bureau near the top of the document. The need for a census became clear soon after the 13 colonies broke ties with Great Britain. The Revolutionary War was expensive, and a census provided a way to allocate the debt among the states. The Founding Fathers also wanted to establish a representative government, linking a state’s population to the number of its members in the House of Representatives. Thus, the framers of our Constitution enshrined the census as a vital tool that we use to measure America’s people, places and economy.

Since 1790, the U.S. Census has been more than a simple head count; it has recorded the growth and composition of our nation. Today, the 10-year census, the economic census, and the American Community Survey provide statistics that let us know how our country is doing. We give Congress and community leaders the tools they need to do everything from planning schools and building roads, to providing recreational opportunities and health care services – decisions that shape our democracy.

It’s an honor to serve as the Director of the Census Bureau, and I’m grateful to the agency’s employees for their hard work. America’s future will be data-driven, and my colleagues have always led the way in tracking emerging trends and embracing new technologies – from Herman Hollerith’s development of an automatic tabulation system for the 1890 Census, to our acquisition of the first civilian computer in 1950, to our plans to conduct the 2020 Census largely over the internet.

I invite you to learn more about the Census Bureau’s innovative history and role in shaping America’s development by visiting http://www.census.gov/how/infographics or http://www.census.gov/history.


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Providing Information for Emergency Preparedness as Arthur Approaches

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Written by John. H. Thompson

As many Americans begin to prepare for Hurricane Arthur this week, the Census Bureau’s OnTheMap for Emergency Management tool helps provide federal, state and local officials and emergency planners with the information they may need about communities in the projected path of the storm.

OnTheMap for Emergency Management is a Web-based resource that provides a live view of selected emergencies in the U.S., 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It automatically incorporates real-time updates from federal sources so users can view the potential effects of Tropical Storm Arthur (and other disasters) on the U.S. population and workforce.

Through OnTheMap for Emergency Management, the Census Bureau provides information not just on the number of people affected, but also provides useful information on some of their characteristics (for example, whether they are 65  or older) and their work (such as their employment patterns).  Following Super Storm Sandy, New Jersey planners were able to estimate the volume of traffic in affected areas.


As the storm continues to develop, the Census Bureau will work closely with our federal partners to make sure they have the information they need.

For those of you preparing for the storm, you can find hurricane safety tips at www.ready.gov/hurricanes. Visit the National Hurricane Center for the latest Arthur forecasts and remember to follow the National Weather Service for active alerts.

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Happy 2014 Test Census Day!

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Written by John H. Thompson

You may remember that in 2010, April 1 marked Census Day, or the reference day for counting the population. Each decennial census has its own Census Day, and the 2014 Census test, currently underway in parts of Washington D.C. and Montgomery County, Md., is no different. For the test, July 1, 2014 is your Census Day.

If you are participating in the test, happy Census Day to you!  You should fill out your questionnaire based on the people and circumstances of your household on July 1. Your participation will help us build a more innovative and cost-effective 2020 Census.

If you are selected to participate, we encourage you to go online and fill out the questionnaire. One of our goals is to test internet response. In 2020, we expect as much as 55 percent of the population to respond online. This test researches both the Internet as a response option and as a way to contact people prior to the survey.

With the 2014 Census Test, we are researching on a small scale, new methods and advanced technologies to make the constitutionally mandated once-a-decade headcount quick, easy and secure with a goal of saving up to $5 billion in operating costs for the 2020 Census. Through the smart use of technology and information already available from government sources, the 2020 Census seeks to provide substantial taxpayer savings while maintaining a commitment to quality, accuracy and confidentiality.

We are also still hiring for the 2014 Test. The Census Bureau will hire 1,000 temporary office and field staff in the Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County, Md., area. Pay ranges from $14 to $21.50 an hour. Call 1-888-480-1639 for information on how to apply.

I will continue to update you on preparations for the 2020 Census. You can also read my previous blog post on the opening of our Local Census Office for the 2014 Test last month.

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Evaluating the American Community Survey: The ACS Content Review

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Written by John H. Thompson

Every month of every year, and in every county across the nation, a relatively small number of households receive notice that they have been randomly selected to receive the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

The American Community Survey, or ACS, is the lesser known part of the every-ten-year census. To produce more timely statistics between census years, the former “census long form” questions were moved to this rolling survey format after the 2000 Census.

Many of the detailed socio-economic and housing questions on the American Community Survey can trace their genesis back to the 19th century, some even earlier.  James Madison, Father of the Constitution and fourth U.S. president, ensured that the Constitution authorized Congress to include questions in the census that provided the level of detail needed to effectively govern the new country.

“In order to accommodate our laws to the real situation of our constituents,” he explained, “we ought to be acquainted with that situation.”

Today, the American Community Survey provides the objective basis for the distribution of more than $400 billion in federal programming decisions. ACS statistics are used by all communities to more clearly plan for investments and services.

Quality ACS statistics are dependent on the participation of all households in the survey. The survey takes time to fill out, with more than 70 questions on dozens of topics.

That’s why we began a top-to-bottom review of the American Community Survey – to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the uses, justification, and merit of each question on the ACS. Is it possible to reduce the burden on households while still producing the quality information the nation needs?

We are asking federal agencies – the primary data users – to detail their specific data needs, especially as those needs relate to four particular questions on the survey: respondents’ income, disability status, journey to work and household plumbing facilities. We also are asking for details from state, local and tribal governments, along with the business community. We need to know if the American Community Survey is the only suitable vehicle to collect the information each question generates.

We are working with the Office of Management and Budget to establish criteria for evaluating all reported data uses. This will factor in elements such as whether the data are required by federal law, whether the data are needed to manage a required program, and whether the data are needed for small geographies. We encourage you to provide feedback about your or your organization’s data needs. Ultimately, the findings will form the basis of recommendations for the future of the survey. Our goal is that the ACS would provide the most useful information with the least amount of burden. To follow this process and sign up for updates, visit our ACS Content Review web page.

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Collecting Reliable, Timely and Local Census Data

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Written by: John H. Thompson

I was pleased to participate last week in the inaugural conference of the American Community Survey Data Users Group.  This conference brought together a diverse group of data-loving number crunchers from local governments, nonprofits, economic development agencies, researchers and private sector companies from across the U.S. Their common connection: the reliable, timely and local data about their communities provided by the American Community Survey.

Sessions included case studies on how the American Community Survey statistics are used by cities, rural communities and businesses to measure disaster impacts, create jobs and develop policy for transit, housing and health care. Data users said the ACS is the most authoritative source of data on these topics for communities of every size, and how they rely on the availability of a common source of reliable data.

I was also asked about the challenges to survey data collection, the availability of the data and the impacts to the American Community Survey. They asked me what would happen to the survey if it were not mandated by law. As we have explained in the past, we have looked at this question and our research shows that a voluntary survey would reduce the self-response rates significantly.  To make up the shortfall, we would have to increase the number of households surveyed and conduct much more in-person follow-up, at an additional cost of more than $90 million annually. If we weren’t able to increase the number of households surveyed we would collect much less data and accuracy would decrease due to increased sampling variation.  This would disproportionately affect the accuracy of the results that we produce for many small areas and small population groups.

The maps below illustrate this.  Both maps show the percentages of census tracts within each county that have acceptable levels of quality data. The first map shows the percentages under the current, mandatory approach. As a mandatory survey, less than five percent of counties have 80 percent or more of their tracts with unacceptable levels of quality data. This impacts about 2.48 million people.

ACS Map Mandatory

As a voluntary survey (second map), with the reductions in sample size (assuming that the budget would stay fixed), the number of counties with 80 percent of the tracts having unacceptable data would increase to 751 and would include more than 61 million people in the affected areas.

ACS Map Voluntary

Canada’s census agency, Statistics Canada, experienced a drop in participation when it moved to a voluntary survey in 2011. The response rate dropped from 90 percent in 2006 to 69 percent in 2011. Due to poor reliability with estimates, there are now a large number of communities in Canada for which there are no statistics released on the general welfare and composition of the population.

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