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American Community Survey

Posted by LMI Win-Win Network - On March 02, 2012 (EST)

This discussion forum covers the American Community Survey (ACS), which has replaced the decennial census “long form.” The ACS is the single most comprehensive source for detailed geographical data (the series began publication in 2000). The ACS first covered all counties in 2005, and as of 2011 covers even areas with extremely small populations.

Unlike most other government surveys, which supply pre-packaged tables, to obtain ACS data the user typically must design their own customized table. Another key difference is that the user must choose among three data sets: 1-year data, or combined 3-year or 5-year data sets. For areas with relatively small populations, the combined-year data sets enable the user to obtain data with a lower margin of error.

Ideas, questions or requests for information may be posed to other members of this Community of Practice, one or more of whom may be able to help you or respond with their own ideas.

User Comments (3)
On March 02, 2012  LMI Win-Win Network said:
Unlike most other government surveys, which supply pre-packaged tables, to obtain the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) data users typically must design their own customized table. Another key difference is that the user must choose among three data sets: 1-year data, or combined 3-year or 5-year data sets. For areas with relatively small populations, the combined-year data sets enable the user to obtain data with a lower margin of error. Here’s some information to make it easier to locate ACS data There are many ways to create your table, but the method below is one of the quickest and easiest for workforce-related purposes. To access ACS data directly, the best site is probably 1. Then, in the far left column, click on “Topics,” and at the bottom of the pop-up box and choose “Dataset.” 2. Click on the year and which of the 3 data sets for that year that you desire. 3. Then go to the top of the pop-up box and choose “People.” 4. Within the “People” category, you will most commonly be choosing “Education,” “Employment,” or “Income & Earnings.” The “Employment” category has the most choices, including occupation, industry, part-time/full-time status, class of worker, work disability status, etc. 5. After making your selection, return to the far left column and click on “Geographies” if you wish to choose a state, county, or smaller jurisdiction (the default choice is for the national total). 6. After you select the jurisdiction, check the “Add” at the top of the “Geography Results” bar (in blue at about mid-screen level). Then close the box by clicking on the “X” at the upper right corner of the box. 7. By now, the number of table choices should have narrowed considerably. You can either scroll through the list of tables, or type in the characteristic that you especially want in the “Search for” box. If variable exists, the list will be reordered with your choice at the top of the list. 8. Once you see the title of the table you want, you can double-click on it to open it. This is the simplest method. You can also choose the “Download” feature just about the list of tables, although the data do not always display in a very user-friendly manner by downloading the table. So it may be easier and involve less re-formatting to simply copy and paste the table from the ACS Web site into a MS Excel spreadsheet.

On March 18, 2013  LMI Win-Win Network said:
Value of the ACS

The private sector National Research Council (with funding from the U.S. Census Bureau) has issued a summary of a June 2012 workshop session on the value of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

By registering for the National Academies Press site (no charge), the report can be downloaded for free. See Benefits, Burdens, and Prospects of the American Community Survey: Summary of a Workshop (2013), 207 pp.

The Council’s summary of the report is below.

In June 2012, the Committee on National Statistics (sponsored by the U.S. Census Bureau) convened a Workshop on the Benefits (and Burdens) of the American Community Survey (ACS)---the detailed demographic and economic survey that began full-scale data collection in 2005 and that replaced the traditional "long form" in the 2010 census. ACS data are used by numerous federal agencies to administer programs, yet the ACS only moved from abstraction to reality for most users in 2010, when the first ACS estimates for small areas (based on 5 years of collected data) were made available. Hence, the workshop marked the opportunity to develop a picture of the breadth of the nonfederal user base of the ACS---among them, the media, policy research and evaluation groups (that distill ACS results for the media and broader public), state and local agencies, businesses and economic development organizations, and local and regional planning authorities---and to gather information on users' experiences with the first full releases of ACS products.

In addition to covering innovative uses of the information now available on a continuous basis in the ACS, the workshop gave expression to the challenges and burdens associated with the survey: the time burden places on respondents, the challenges of explaining and interpreting estimates with increased levels of variability, and the privacy and confidentiality implications of some of the ACS content. Benefits, Burdens, and Prospects of the American Community Survey: Summary of a Workshop provides a factual summary of the workshop proceedings and hints at the contours of the ACS user constituency, providing important input to the ongoing review and refinement of the ACS program.

On June 17, 2014  LMI Win-Win Network said:
Tips for Using the American Community Survey

The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) — which replaced the “long form” of the decennial census after 2000 — is now one of the best sources of local data (although you should keep in mind alternative sources from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and other Census Bureau surveys).

ACS data are primarily available through the Census Bureau’s “American FactFinder” resource (see the link below). American FactFinder is not technically speaking a data tool, but rather a resource that will connect you with prepared Census Bureau tables. This distinction is important because not all ACS data are available from American FactFinder.

The tips below offer a few pointers to make is much easier for you to find ACS data in American FactFinder. The Census Bureau offers more thorough manuals and advice at the main ACS advice site, at

The easiest methods other than American FactFinder to obtain ACS data are the Census Bureau publications called “ACS Data Briefs” and “ACS Reports,” both available at (see the list on the left side of the screen to obtain the ACS Reports). The Census Bureau also offers a genuine tool to extract ACS data (and statistics from many other surveys), called DataFerrett (, but for most individuals some training will be necessary to use it.

General Search Tips

Start with the “Advanced Search” option,, which gives you the most options.

One of the best places to start is by clicking on “Topics” (on the left). A list of 8 choices will appear, several of which are well worth becoming familiar with. All topics except housing are included under the “People” subheading: this is where you’ll find employment, educational attainment, income and earnings, poverty, age, gender, disability, veterans, health insurance, etc. Note that race and Hispanic origin are on the left side of screen, not under the “Topics” heading.

Also under topics, if you already know which dataset you want, clicking on “Dataset” first will greatly simplify your subsequent search by narrowing down the resulting tables. E.g., if you want the latest 1-year ACS data, that choice will appear near the top of the list. Although the geography button also appears on the left, it’s simpler and faster to type in your geographical choice in the box in the upper right.

Industry and Occupation choices can also be made on the left. The Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Occupation Codes are a special tabulation of ACS data that contain much more detailed occupations than the occupational data available from selecting occupation under the “Topics” heading described above.

When moving around American FactFinder, to return to the previous screen, don’t use the back button on your Internet browser (e.g., Chrome), but instead use the “BACK TO ADVANCED SEARCH” button, which appears above the table on your screen, on the right side.

A Few Key ACS Resources You Should Know About

Under the “Product Type” heading are some great resources that many users don’t know exist — there are many choices, but below are those that you’ll probably find most useful.

1. “Comparison Profiles” show 5 years of ACS historical data. Note that the oldest data available through this tool are from 2006, although 2005 ACS data can be obtained through a search of the “Dataset” option above.

2. “Narrative Profiles” are essentially automatically-generated term papers for whatever geographic locale you select: the profiles include text, tables, and charts. The profiles supply a wealth of basic data on population, employment, occupations, industries, income, poverty, education, geographic mobility and commuting patterns, disability, family types, immigration, language use, and housing.

3. “Ranking Tables” automatically rank your data by geographic area from the highest to the lowest rank. E.g., the high school completion table (choose “educational attainment” to find it) shows that Montana had the greatest proportion of high school-educated individuals.

Types of Tables

ACS tables are denoted both by a combination letter-number code, and by a title. By understanding a bit about this ACS nomenclature, you can more quickly pinpoint the most relevant table. “Economic Characteristics” and “Social Characteristics” tables each include a variety of data, but on different topics. The former includes employment and unemployment, occupation, industry, income and earnings, health insurance, poverty, and commuting statistics. The latter includes educational attainment, disability and veteran status, citizenship, and other household and family characteristics.

The letter codes also offer useful clues about the contents of the tables. Here are explanations for some of the codes.

B tables supply the most detailed data.

C tables are a collapsed version of the B tables.

S tables are derived products that take key topics and include percentage estimates.

R tables are ranking tables which rank a single estimate at the state-level.

GCTs are geographic comparison tables that show a single estimate for various geographies.

DP tables are data profiles which provide key estimates with percentages.

CP tables are the comparison profiles which compare key estimates to past years’ data.

If you locate a valuable table, jot down the alpha-numeric code for future reference, as you can type in the number in the search box at the top (the one next to the geographical search box). No matter what year or combination of years that you're looking for, the alpha-numeric code will remain the same. Note that once you view a table, American FactFinder automatically checks off the box to the left of the table title, which lets you know which tables you've already examined.

One especially useful table for employment-related data is CP03, which includes historical economic characteristics data (for the previous 4 years in the case of single-year ACS data). “CP” means “Comparison Profile,” as explained above.

Note that if you find an especially helpful table, you can often “bookmark” it on your computer. To do so, don’t bookmark it as you normally would, but instead use the ACS “Bookmark” button above the table (however, not all tables can be bookmarked).

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