Back in the old days (that is, ten years ago) there were two forms of the census that were sent out every ten years: the long form and the short form. The short form contained questions very similar to what you filled out on this year’s census, gathering information on age, sex, Hispanic origin, race, relationship, and home ownership. The long form had more extensive questions on topics such as demographics, housing status, social status, and economic information. Beginning this year, the long form is no longer a part of the decennial census. For the first time since 1930, everyone gets the short form.
Instead of sending the long form every ten years, the Census Bureau now conducts a different type of census called the American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS gathers much of the same type of information that the long form used to gather, but instead of every ten years, it is sent out on a continual basis. The ACS is sent to a rolling sample of addresses every month of every year.
So what information does the ACS gather? It asks questions about marital status, marital history, fertility and whether grandparents act as caregivers. It asks about ancestry, place of birth, and what language is spoken at home. It gathers information about educational attainment and job status. It asks about health care coverage, food stamps and veteran status. It asks about your vehicle and how far you have to go to work. Finally, it asks for detailed information about your home, including its history, structure, utilities and mortgage status. For a detailed explanation of why each of the questions on the ACS is asked, see the Census Bureau’s Question by Question Fact Sheet.
The design and early proposals for ACS occurred from 1990 to 1993 when the concept of continuous measurement was first proposed, according to Design and Methodology by ACS. Between 1994 and 1999, the Census Bureau tested out prototypes in a number of small sites. Between 2000 and 2004, the Census Bureau carried out larger nation-wide surveys and published reports for the country, states, and large geographic areas. Full implementation began in 2005, when ACS sampled three million addresses in the United States and 36,000 addresses in Puerto Rico.
So let’s take a look at the three-year social characteristics estimates for Minnesota for 2006-2008. From the American Community Survey website, click on Access Data near the top of the page. Near the top of the Access Data page, you can click on American FactFinder where you can decide which year’s results you want to view. If you want to view the social characteristics estimates from Minnesota for 2006-2008, you’d click Data Profiles under the 2008 3-year estimates box. Then we enter “Minnesota” which leads us to the Social Characteristics results for Minnesota. This gives us all kinds of information. For example, we learn that 91.1% of Minnesotans 25 years or older have graduated from high school, and 31.1% have achieved a bachelor’s degree or higher. We also learn that 4,813,623 Minnesotans were born here, 1,235,162 were born in another state, 28,659 were born in Puerto Rico, U.S. Island Areas or were born abroad to U.S. citizen parents, and 339,680 were born in another country. Of the foreign-born population, 146,976 are naturalized citizens, and 192,704 are not citizens. We also learn that 463,576 people in Minnesota speak a language other than English at home.
In addition to social characteristics, you can find economic characteristics, housing characteristics, and demographics. You can also view the information in narrative form, as opposed to table form, and view accompanying graphs.
There are three main reasons why the Census Bureau made the switch from the long form census to ACS, according to a Census Bureau press release. The first reason is to streamline decennial census operations. By focusing only on the short form, the Census Bureau hopes that the decennial census effort on the federal, state and local level will go faster. The second reason for switching to ACS is that, while the decennial hires temporary workers, the ACS has year-round staff. These interviewers have more in-depth knowledge and experience and are better able to follow up with people reguarding the ACS survey data, according to the press release. Finally, the press release states that though ACS is not as precise as the older long form survey, it is more current, and therefore more relevant.