Why We Need the American Community Survey

What provides data that helps determine how over $400 billion in federal and state funds are spent annually?  What information do private companies use to decide where to build new stores, hire new employees, and gain valuable insights into consumer spending habits?  The answer to both questions is the American Community Survey or ACS.

The ACS is an annual statistical survey that the Census Bureau uses to poll a representative, randomized sample of about 3.5 million households in the U.S.  (My family was one of those households two years ago.)  The survey includes questions on race/ethnicity, age, habits, languages spoken, occupation, housing and various other categories.  (A sample of the questionnaire is available)  The data collected are released without identifying the names of individuals, and offer current demographic snapshots of communities across the country.  The Census Bureau has prepared a brief video explaining what the ACS is and how it is used.

Despite its obvious benefits, the ACS may soon be gone.  Back in May, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill to eliminate the ACS, with Representative Daniel Webster of Florida calling the survey “intrusive,” “an inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars,” “unconstitutional,” and “the very picture of what’s wrong in D.C.”  He argued that its elimination would save about $2.5 billion over the next ten years.  However, what he and other critics have failed to acknowledge is that the $240 million annual cost of the survey translates to only about 0.006% of federal spending.

The Senate is currently considering the fate of the ACS.  Fortunately, a broad coalition of organizations, ranging from the American Planning Association to major business groups to civil rights organizations, are working to ensure the Senate understands the vital importance of ACS and the data it provides in making sound policy and economic decisions.  As planners, we must support the ACS and do our part to ensure its survival.  After all, without detailed information on the characteristics of neighborhoods and communities collected through the survey, it would be impossible to intelligently and effectively plan for and allocate the money needed to site and open schools, hospitals, police and fire stations, parks, and other essential services and amenities.  To put it bluntly, we would be steering blind without ACS data.

Elimination of the ACS would adversely impact my work as a park planner.  Specifically, my department is currently considering the use of ACS data to update the average household size component of the Quimby parkland formula which calculates how much parkland and/or in-lieu fees residential developers must provide.  Average household sizes, together with the number and type of housing units proposed for a subdivision, are key components of this formula.  We are still using figures based on the 2000 Census which are over ten years old.  Updating the figures makes sense, but is more complicated than it sounds because technical analyses and a formal amendment of the County’s Subdivision Code are required.  By using the latest ACS data released each year, we would be able to more accurately determine the parkland obligation of proposed subdivisions and ensure the adequate provision of parkland and/or in-lieu fees.  Ideally, we would like to adjust the household size figures annually using ACS data, but obviously this will not be possible if the survey is eliminated.

Government agencies are not the only ones using ACS data.  Many businesses, especially retailers, are increasingly reliant on the market data collected through the annual survey.  Without this information, they would have a hard time determining market demand, identifying the most appropriate locations for their businesses, and stocking their shelves with the most appropriate products for their customers.  For example, popular retail giant Target recognizes the importance of the ACS and uses its data extensively, as explained in this brief video.  Thus it is not surprising that the retailer will soon be opening a new store in downtown Los Angeles where the residential population has been increasing and the demand for brand name retailers is growing.

To plan effectively, allocate funding fairly, and make informed decisions, we need reliable data.  The ACS is the only source of comprehensive, consistent, and objective information about the demographic, economic, and social characteristics of our communities and neighborhoods.  Because the Senate has not yet voted on the changes to the ACS proposed by the House, there is still time to prevent its elimination.  As planners, we must urge our senators to do the right thing by voting to maintain funding for the ACS and to keep its methodology intact.



American Community Survey logo from Wikiipedia

Sample ACS form from: www.census.gov

Profile photo of Clement Lau About Clement Lau

Clement Lau, AICP, has 15 years of professional experience in urban and regional planning. Currently, Dr. Lau is a Departmental Facilities Planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. He enjoys writing about a variety of planning issues and is on the author panel for UrbDeZine. He also has published articles in the California Planning & Development Report, Public Works Management & Policy, and Progressive Planning. Dr. Lau previously worked for Los Angeles County's Department of Regional Planning and the consulting firm of Cotton/Bridges/Associates in Pasadena. He has guest lectured on public policy and urban planning topics at the University of Southern California and California State University, Northridge. He holds a doctorate and master's in urban planning from USC, and bachelor's in economics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


  1. I whole-heartedly support and totally agree with the opinions and sentiments expressed here my Mr. Lau. Knowledge IS power and this survey affords a most comprehensive look into our communities.I urge all who read this to phone or write your senators and tell them NOT to eliminate funding for the ACS.