What You Can Learn from Census Information

Who uses it? How can you use it too?

The Census takes place every ten years and tries to count everyone in the United States. The 2020 Census will be finishing up at the end of October. The census has a short list of questions about the ages of the people who live in each household.

The U.S. Census Bureau also conducts ongoing research with the American Community Survey (ACS). This survey provides information every year to help communities plan investments and services. It also helps determine how federal and state money is distributed. The American Community Survey collects data on:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Race
  • Family and relationships
  • Income and benefits
  • Health insurance
  • Education
  • Veteran status
  • Disabilities
  • Where you work and how you get there
  • Where you live and how you pay for some essentials

The current U.S. population is about 330 million people. Around 3.5 million people take the American Community Survey each year. While that is only about 1 percent of the total U. S. population, there are enough people participating to provide reliable information.

How can you find American Community Survey (ACS) information?

Public agencies and businesses use this information to learn about communities. Any community member can access it, too. You can visit the 2019 ACS Data Wheel and choose if you want to look at the information by state, by metro area or by “Congressional district” (the area that each member of the U.S. House of Representatives is elected by).

Here is an example for the state of California:

Numbers for the total United States are in the left column. Numbers for California are in the middle.

How to get more information on specific issues

Last year, Key to Community team leader Resonja Willoughby held a Community Talk series at Oakland Library’s Second Start program. Her goal was to help people learn more about the issues they care about and help them find ways to take action. During the conversation series, the topic that came up the most was the high cost of housing.

We used the same 2019 ACS Data Wheel pictured above to look at the cost of housing in the San Francisco/Oakland metro region and how that compares to the U.S. and California. We also looked at household incomes, which affect people’s ability to afford rent or to buy a house. Data from the ACS website is shown below. It includes the “median” cost of a home and household income. The median value means that half of the answers are above this number and half are below. For example, half of people in California make more than $80,440, while half make less than this amount.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2019 American Community Survey (ACS)

Notice that there is a much bigger gap between home values and household income in Oakland than in California or the U.S. This information matched the experience of the people participating in Community Talk. They reported dramatic rent increases, family and friends who had to move away because they could no longer afford their homes, plus a visible increase in people without homes in the area.

Information from the American Community Survey cannot fix the problems around housing. But their data can give us perspective about the size of the challenge and how no one solution is going to be enough. For cities the size of Oakland, the ACS can also provide trends. Here is the same information about the median home value over time:

Source: Live Stories.com

This shows how home values have grown much faster in Oakland than in California as a whole and across the U.S. That helps explain why more and more people are having trouble finding places to live that they can afford. There are many other kinds of data, but the ACS is one way for you to look at basic information as a starting point for your next conversation and what you want to learn next.

Visit this link for more information about the American Community Survey.

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