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PAM 3250/SOC 3250: Neighborhoods, Housing and Urban Policy (Fall 2017): Understanding the Census

Introduction to using and understanding the US Census and American Community Survey. It includes a Social Explorer tutorial to help you generate data tables and create maps.

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Census Factoids

The 2010 decennial census was estimated to cost over $13 billion.

The Census Bureau will be testing online census data collection in upcoming American Community Surveys and plans to offer an online option in the next decennial census in 2020.

The census counts people at their 'usual residence', which is, according to the Census form and website, "where they live and sleep most of the time". 

College students should be counted as residents of where they live during the school year, whether it is on their college campus or in a nearby neighborhood, but are often counted twice, both at college and at there permanant residence where their family lives.

College students in dorms are not included in income and poverty data, but are included if they live in non-dormitory or off-campus housing.  For this reason, college towns often show very high poverty levels.

What is the US Census?

  • The US Census, also known as the decennial census, is carried out by constitutional mandate every ten years, with the aim of counting every resident in the country.  The data collected determines the number of senate seats for each state and informs the distribution of federal funds to communities throughout the US.
  • The most recent US census was conducted in 2010.  Questions asked included number of people in the household, and their age, sex and race.
  • The previous census in 2000, included a 'long form' which asked more than 100 questions and was sent to only a percentage of total residents.
    The 'long form' has since been replaced by the American Community Survey, described below.

What is the American Community Survey?

  • The American Community Survey, or ACS, is an ongoing survey sent to a rolling and random sample of the US population every year (about 250,000 per month, 3 million per year).
  • In addition to basic demographic data, the ACS collects information regarding disabilities, health insurance, education, income, and family, among others. 

 

Note that data from the ACS are used to make estimates for the greater population. Data are available as follows:

  • 1-year estimates available for states as well as cities, counties, metro areas, and population groups greater than 65,000
  • 3-year estimates available for areas of 20,000 to 65,000
  • 5-year estimates available for areas of fewer than 20,000
  • To find out when to use 1, 3, or 5-year estimates, go here.

What is Social Explorer?

Social Explorer is a mapping and data resource tool that allows a user to easily find and map demographic data from the US Census and American Community Survey.  Data in Social Explorer is up to date and includes the following data sets:

With Social Explorer, you can visualize data with mapping tools, export, save and print maps, share projects, download data, and create data reports at all geographic levels.

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