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Critics of last year’s decennial census “long form” may soon find a similar questionnaire in their mailboxes as the U.S. Census Bureau begins implementing a revised version of the American Community Survey.

Intended to replace the census long form, which questioned recipients on everything from house size to commute length, the American Community Survey will provide estimates of demographic, housing, social and economic characteristics every year for all states, cities, counties, metropolitan areas and population groups of 65,000 or more. Smaller population areas will also have to participate in the survey, but data for such areas will initially take several years to compile.

Survey recipients will be selected at random every month using the Census Bureau’s “Master Address File.” The sample will represent the entire United States, and no address will receive the ACS questionnaire more than once in any five-year period.

In its promotion of the ACS, the Census Bureau says the survey will provide “community leaders and other data users [with] timely information for planning and evaluating public programs for everyone from newborns to the elderly.”

The decennial census has two parts, the bureau explained: It counts the population and, for the administration of federal programs and the distribution of billions of federal dollars, it obtains demographic, housing, social and economic information by asking one in six households to fill out the “long form.”

“Since this is done only once every 10 years, long-form information becomes out of date. Planners and other data users are reluctant to rely on it for decisions that are expensive and affect the quality of life of thousands of people,” the bureau explained. “The American Community Survey is a way to provide the data communities need every year instead of once in 10 years. It is an ongoing survey that the Census Bureau plans will replace the long form in the 2010 Census.”

Implementation of the ACS began in 1996, when the bureau began a two-year testing period of the survey. Full implementation of the survey is scheduled to begin in 2003 in every county of the United States. Data will be collected from the survey’s 3 million participants by mail. Like the decennial census, households that choose not to complete and return the form will be visited by Census Bureau employees.

The bureau says the new system is necessary to provide timely information to undefined “data users.”

“Data users have asked for timely data that provide consistent measures for all areas,” the bureau says. “Decennial sample data are out-of-date soon after they are published, about two years after the census is taken. Their usefulness declines every year thereafter. Yet billions of government and business dollars are divided among jurisdictions and population groups each year based on their social and economic profiles in the decennial census.”

Some uses for the information include tracking the well-being of children, families and the elderly; determining where to locate new highways, schools and hospitals; showing a large corporation that a town has the workforce the company needs; evaluating programs such as welfare and workforce diversification; and monitoring and publicizing the results of their programs, according to the Census Bureau website.

“As an ongoing survey, the American Community Survey is a flexible vehicle, capable of adapting to changing customer needs. Once it is fully implemented, the potential is there to add questions of national policy interest or specialized supplements to help identify the situations of special population groups.”

The federal government also plans to use the ACS to screen for households with specific characteristics, according to the Census Bureau. Such households could be identified through the basic survey or through the use of supplemental questions.

“Targeted households can then be candidates for follow-up interviews, thus providing a more robust sampling frame for other surveys,” the agency’s website states.

One critic of the new survey, who responded to a web-group posting about the ACS, said it is “interesting to note that the federal government has the money (our money) to implement a computerized system that is able to correlate intrusive census questions to an exact address for all the addresses in the USA … yet are completely unwilling to implement a top-notch accounting system that shows all incoming and outgoing flow of moneys, property, materials, wages and other expenditures by category/individual/department/entity.”

Another ACS critic reluctantly participated in the survey after multiple visits by a Census Bureau employee.

“Part of me says it doesn’t matter – they already know everything down to when you cut your toenails,” the ACS recipient wrote.


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