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 www.census.gov/acs/www/guidance_for_data_users/guidance_main/.
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 www.census.gov/acs/www/library/by_series/acs_data_briefs/ (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 (http://dataferrett.census.gov/), but for most individuals some training will be necessary to use it.
General Search Tips
Start with the “Advanced Search” option, http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/searchresults.xhtml?refresh=t, 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).