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History 395: Migration in African History: The American Community Survey (ACS)

What is the American Community Survey?

  • The American Community Survey, or ACS, is an ongoing survey sent to a rolling and random sample of the US population every year (about 250,000 per month, 3 million per year).
  • In addition to basic demographic data, the ACS collects information regarding disabilities, health insurance, education, income, and family, among others. 
  • The Census Bureau uses this data to make 1-year, 3-year, and 5-year estimates.

The ACS Process

American Community Survey infographic

Image source:  United States Census Bureau.  "How the American Community Survey Works for Your Community." June 14, 2015.

  • The Census Bureau maintains an archive of questionnaires.  It also provides rationales for each question.
  • Individual questionnaires go to traditional residences (homes, apartments, mobile homes).
  • Group quarters questionnaires go to nontraditional residences, including prisons, mental hospitals, nursing homes, college dormitories, military barracks, group homes, etc.).
  • 1-year estimates available for states as well as cities, counties, metro areas, and population groups greater than 65,000.
  • 3-year estimates available for areas of 20,000 to 65,000. (Note that 3-year estimates have been discontinued.)
  • 5-year estimates available for areas of fewer than 20,000.

Which Estimates Should You Use?

When to Use ACS estimates

ACS data is incorporated into American FactFinder, the Census Bureau's primary data tool, with a variety of access points:

University of Puget Sound students, staff and faculty can access selected datasets from the ACS via the Data-Planet database.

The Census Bureau's ACS Data & Documentation page includes options to download data via FTP; summary files; and Public Use Microdata Samples.

Not sure which data tool to use?  Consult this data tool chart.