The American Community Survey (ACS) is an annual survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau that provides vital information to help determine how more than $675 billion in federal and state funds are distributed each year. On March 17, 2022, the Census Bureau released the 2016-2020 ACS 5-Year Estimates, after multiple delays due to quality and response issues for 2020 data collection. This data, which many agencies rely on for annual community assessments, is now available at data.census.gov.
How can I access the 2016-2020 data?
Explore Census Data is the most direct and comprehensive source for all Census data. There are many tables, maps, and filters that allow you to customize your data gathering. For something a bit more straightforward, check out Narrative Profiles. Here, you can select a geography type (state, county, census tract, etc.). Then, a narrative report with charts and tables will populate with data from 18 Census areas. Narrative Profiles are a great starting point for understanding the population in a geographic area.
Why is the ACS data aggregated into 5-year estimates?
The ACS 5-year estimates are meant to capture data over the course of years. Just as in prior data releases, the 2016-2020 5-year estimates represent data across multiple years, and not a specific point in time. A press release from the Census Bureau provides more context:
It is important to note, the ACS 5-year estimates are not designed to measure rapid change during short periods because the data come from a 5-year period. Although the most recent estimates contain data that include the economic shock from the COVID-19 pandemic, they also contain data collected in the final years (2016–2019) of the longest expansion in the history of U.S. business cycles. These data only reflect a small part of the impact of the pandemic on social, economic and housing measures.
What communities have experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic is only one part of many data points in the context of the whole survey. One example provided by the Census Bureau looks at the percent of the population that works from home. Comparing two sets of ACS 5-year estimates, we can see that the percent of the U.S. population that works from home increased from 4.4% in 2011-2015 to 7.3% in 2016-2020. While we know that a significant number of people worked from home during the pandemic, that data is only represented in one year (2020) of the 5-year period. As part of an aggregate data set, large fluctuations in data – like the number of people working from home – are moderated.
If you are looking for a just single year of data, the ACS 1-year estimates for 2020 will not be released because the Census Bureau was not able to control for the impact of nonresponse bias. You can learn more about the impact of the pandemic on ACS data collection here.
Is the 2016-2020 ACS 5-year data be comparable to other 5-year data sets?
Every year, the Census Bureau works to improve to the data collection process for the ACS. In some years it’s a change the wording or format of a question. Other times, it’s a change to the data collection or method of analysis – how population estimates are calculated, for example. If you are looking to compare the 2011-2015 ACS 5-year estimates with the 2016-2020 ACS 5-year estimates, you can review a summary that shows (by topic area) where data can be directly compared, and where there are significant changes. For example, poverty status and health insurance coverage data are comparable from 2011-2015 to 2016-2020 – there were no changes to these sections of the survey. Household type/family type data is not, because the 2020 Census included expanded response categories for opposite-sex and same-sex couples.
An additional consideration when comparing data is that geographic boundaries may have changed. You can check out the Census Bureau’s Geographic & ACS website for maps and other reference materials. Note that current zip code boundaries still reflect the 2010 Census and will be updated with the 2021 ACS data release.
Data is an important tool for programs serving children and families. If your program needs assistance with data gathering to support program planning or to conduct a community assessment, please reach out. We would be glad to talk with you and learn more about your program’s needs.
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