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Census of Population and Housing

American Community Survey



Early on one of the criticisms leveled against the Decennial Census was its timeliness.  In 1996 the Census Bureau began developing a new statistical product - the American community Survey (ACS) to address this issue.  After a decade of testing and development, ACS went live in January 2005.

It is designed to give communities a more accurate statistical overview of demographic changes. 

The Survey will be taken at least every three years, and more frequently for larger demographic areas. 

The ACS is sent out to a small percentage of the population on a rotating basis thus providing an ongoing assessment of the nation, its inhabitants, etc.  It is national and continuous and asked of roughly one in forty households annually. The questions asked vary slightly survey to survey depending on the data needs of various federal agencies.  The main purpose of the ACS is to provide insight into the changing social and economic characteristics of the nation. 

The Census Bureau considers it part of the Decennial Census.  Like the Decennial Census, it is confidential and mandatory.   In 2010 the ACS replaced the Decennial Long Form used to provide detailed social and economic information for the last seventy years.

Unlike the Decennial, it is an estimate.  The ACS is designed to provide up-to-date demographic, housing, social and economic data.  But because it is an estimate it can be prone to sample error and distortions.

ACS data is updated yearly.  Working with a very sophisticated algorithm, The Census Bureau using a very small sample provides real time demographic information.  Because estimates are inherently subject to sampling error and uncertainty, the Census Bureau routinely includes margin of error information in its ACS data tables. Originally, data was available as 1 year, 3 year and 5 year estimates, but ACS 3 year estimates have been discontinued.  The 5 year estimates are a rolling total, and as new data becomes available, old data is dropped from the estimate.


When selecting between 1 year, and 5 year estimates consider the following points:

  • Area’s population
  • Level of Reliability
  • How Current of an estimate is needed

Not sure where to start?  Try:

American Community Survey (ACS):   Subject included in the Survey.  (United States Census Bureau)  A list of topics covered in the ACS with links to tables in American FactFinder with data pertaining to the topic.

The resources listed below can help in locating American Community Survey data.  Please check the OSU Libraries’ catalog for location and availability where necessary.


Research Guides

American Community Survey (ACS). (United States. Census Bureau)

Census Research Guide:  American Community Survey.  (University of California – San Diego. The Library)

LibGuide - American Community Survey (ACS):  About the ACS. (Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville. Lovejoy Library)


Interactive Databases

American Fact Finder. (United States. Census Bureau) Search engine for current American Community Survey (ACS) data.  Primary means of dissemination.  Tables, thematic maps, and reference maps. Can customize searches, etc.

ACS Summary File. (United States. Census Bureau) is available in comma-delimited format text files from 2005 to the present.

ACS Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS).  (United States. Census Bureau) Data is available for the ACS in 1, 3 and 5 year estimates from 2005 on.

Data-Plant Statistical Datasets. [Also called ProQuest Statistical Datasets, Lexis-Nexis Statistical Datasets, or Statistical Datasets.  Restricted to OSU Affiliates]  Provides access to statistical information from federal agencies, etc.  Coverage varies with statistical source.  Census data from 1970’s on.

DataFerrett. (United States. Census Bureau)  Allows customized data searching, development of customized spreadsheets using American Community Survey Data.  

Missouri Census Data Center.  (Missouri State Library)  Census data from 1980-ACS including current ACS data for the United States and by state.  Some parts are still under construction.

NHGIS - National Historical Geographic Information System.  (University of Minnesota, Minnesota Population Center)  Provides, free of charge, aggregate census data and GIS-compatible boundary files for the United States between 1790 and 2012

ProQuest Statistical Insight.  Bethesda, Maryland:  Congressional Information Service, <February 7, 2011->: [Ann Arbor, Michigan]:  ProQuest. Provides abstracts and indexes of statistical information from over 100,000 U.S. government publications from 1973, state and private sources from 1980, and approximately 2000 documents from international organizations from 1983. Incorporates ASI subject and keyword searching. Full text or web links provided for some citations.   [Access restricted to OhioLINK members]

Social Explorer. (Social Explorer) [Available on OSU Libraries Research Databases, Must be OSU Affiliate]  Provides quick and easy access to current and historical census data and demographic information. The easy-to-use web interface lets users create maps and reports to illustrate, analyze, and understand demography and social change.

US2010. (Brown University, Spatial Structures in the Social Sciences) Contains statistical data drawn from the census, ACS, and other statistical resources, maps based on census data, bridging tract data 1970-2010.  Limited customization possible.


Other Resources

Current Population Reports.  Department of Commerce. Bureau of the Census. 
Series and subject indexes to the Current Population Reports. Includes links to online versions of reports when available.

Data Tools and Apps. (United States Department of Commerce. Bureau of the Census)
Links to census related databases, etc.  Titles released after June 23, 2014 are available from Publications.

Statistical Abstract of the United States.  Washington, D.C.:  G.P.O., 1878-2012 incomplete.  [Note as of October 2011, the Bureau of Census stopped publishing this title.  ProQuest  took over publication.
Current Issue  |  Archived
Annual.   Data drawn from a variety of sources including the Censuses of Population and Housing. Most tables are national, some state and metropolitan area tables. Available both in hard copy and CD-ROM, although the electronic version is incomplete. 


Further Reading

American Community Survey:  Design and Methodology.   United States Census Bureau.  Washington, D.C.:  U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, January 30, 2014.

American Community Survey (ACS):  What is the American Community Survey? (United States. Census Bureau)

Compass for Understanding and Using American Community Survey Data:  What General Data Users Need to Know.  United States. Census Bureau.  Washington, D.C.:  U.S. Government Printing Office, October 2008.  (There are other titles in this series with slightly different slants intended for different audiences.  Handbooks for Data Users has the complete list of titles available with information on the intended audiences.)

CQ Press Guide to the American Community Survey (ACS) of the U.S. Census Bureau.  A blog covering topics, issues, etc. for the American Community Survey which replaced the U.S. Census “long form”.