Census Reduces Data for Mid-Sized Places

In an effort to save money, the Census Bureau will cut its three-year American Community Survey data program. For nearly a third of U.S. counties, that means getting a murkier picture of their people and economies.

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“The oil patch giveth, and the oil patch taketh away,” said Oklahoma Commissioner of Labor Mark Costello.  In Oklahoma, 15 non-metro counties have heavy oil and gas activity. Four of them (Beckham, Garfield, Grady and Woodward) will be losing American Community Survey data on employment and income that would allow local officials to analyze the impacts.

The Census Bureau announced recently its intention to eliminate the American Community Survey (ACS) three-year estimates products beginning later this year. The change will go into effect for the expected 2012 to 2014 estimates. As with most federal agencies, the Census Bureau is faced with a tightening budget and maintaining data collection in the ACS and planning for the 2020 census have priority. They need to trim $15 million in the coming year and the three-year estimates are on the block.

The change will affect places that have a population of 20,000 to 64,999 residents. That’s one third of U.S. counties, 39 million Americans, or 12.2 percent of the U.S. population. The change will also affect smaller geographic places – cities, villages and Census Designated Places in that population range. That amounts to 55 million residents or 17.5 percent of the U.S. population. These communities will now get data that covers five-year periods instead of three years. That change can make a big difference.

 For example, the population of Mason City, Iowa, in the 2010 Census was 28,079 but continues to decline slowly. Mason City has a reasonably diverse economy that includes manufacturing, health care and financial services – an economy that one would expect to have some stability in the recent recession. The pre-recession unemployment rate from the 2006-2008 ACS was 4.9 percent, but by 2009-2011, in the depth of the recession, it increased to 8.9 percent. Looking at this same data from the five-year ACS there would be virtually no change with a high of 7.4 percent for the 2007-2011 period and a low of 6.9 percent in 2008-2012.

In Moore City, Oklahoma, population 55,081, the poverty rate was just over 8 percent in the 2007-2009 period, then increased to 13.3 percent by the 2010-2012 period. But a poverty analysis based on five-year data from the ACS would show an increase from 10 percent over the 2006-2010 period to 11.3 percent for 2008-2012.

The availability of less timely data means being less responsive to real social and economic changes. Small communities competing for grants and program funding will be at a disadvantage if they can’t show the impact of plant closures or national economic downturns. These events will be captured in the data for large cities and metros but data covering a five year period simply isn’t adequate for monitoring change.

Here’s a quick refresher on how the Census Bureau releases ACS data, if you’re not familiar with the structure of the data products. The traditional Census released detailed community data once every 10 years. In 2005, the Census Bureau switched to conducting a series of rolling surveys throughout each year. Because of the way sampling works, cities of 65,000 and up get valid data that covers a period of one year. Communities under 20,000 get valid data covering a five year period. For communities in the middle, the survey generates valid data that covers a three-year period. Under the Census plan, these mid-sized places would now get data only from the five year collection period.

This change affects a lot of rural counties and communities in non-metropolitan, metropolitan and micropolitan areas. Fully one-third of all U.S.  counties (1,029) fall into this size category and 70 percent of them are in sparsely populated areas. While the vast majority of places (cities, villages and Census Designated Places) are unaffected because they already receive just the five-year estimates, 1,564 additional places will be losing the data. 

Counties

Under 20,000

20,000 to 64,999

65,000 or More

TOTAL

   Non-Metropolitan

         1,018

            313

                4

         1,335

   Micropolitan

            104

            430

            107

            641

   Metropolitan

            181

            286

            700

         1,167

   TOTAL

         1,303

         1,029

            811

         3,143

Places

 

 

 

 

   Non-Metropolitan

        8,118

                7

              35

        8,160

   Micropolitan

        5,761

           143

              36

        5,940

   Metropolitan

     13,622

        1,414

           584

     15,620

   TOTAL

     27,501

        1,564

           655

     29,720

There are a number of important issues that arise as a result of this decision and reasons why the Census Bureau should reconsider this cut of data products.

  • The lack of data will hurt some states more than others. In seven states, over 30% of the population lives in counties in the 20,000-64,999 range.  In Vermont, 72 percent of the state’s population lives in counties that would be affected. All of these areas would lose this valuable data source.
  • The three-year estimates are better than both the one-year and five-year data for time-series comparisons. The three-year estimates allow for more frequent analysis and avoid much of the irregularity of the one-year estimates. For example, the three-year estimates allow for comparison of data from 2005-2007 to 2008-2010 and 2011-2013 (pre-recession, recession, and post-recession). Elimination of the three-year estimates means such analysis has to rely on periods 2005-2009 and 2010-2014, none of which are useful for analyzing the impacts of the recent recession.
  • Losing the three-year data will also affect how we look at larger cities. For example, a simple measure like the poverty rate for the City of Albany, New York (population 97,000), shows considerable year-to-year variation that is not statistically significant and can be very misleading to data users. The three-year estimates show a much more stable level of poverty and avoid the mistake of placing too great an emphasis on the reported data without verifying the margins of error, which unfortunately, is a problem for too many users.
  • Just when data users have become comfortable with the ACS product stream and have learned how to use, and not use, the data, the Census Bureau is eliminating one of the most useful products.

The American Community Survey has become a valuable tool in the analysis of the nation’s population because of the annual production of social and economic characteristics for all communities. After nearly a decade of use and analysis of the ACS data, the benefits and the limitations of the ACS are much better understood today than in the early years when there was confusion about how and when to use the multi-year estimates. Those days are past and the three-year estimates are now a major benefit to small and medium sized communities and should be a standard annual product.

Robert Scardamalia is former chief demographer for the state of New York and directed the Department of Economic Development’s Center for Research and Information Analysis. He is the founder of RLS Demographics, Inc. located in Albany County, New York.

 

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