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R.I.P., Census Long Form

By now you should have filled out and returned your 2010 Census questionnaire--72 percent of Americans did, matching the response rate from 2000. The other 48 million households are being counted now by door-to-door enumerators.  Once the results of the 2010 census are tabulated, they will be used, as in the past, for two important purposes: congressional apportionment and federal spending allocation.

But another, usually much-anticipated use of decennial census results will fall short this time around. In the past, the decennial census has been a treasure trove of socioeconomic data for policy makers, researchers, students, and journalists, covering everything from income to place of birth, educational attainment to commuting patterns, occupation to household heating fuel. All those data were collected on the census “long form,” a questionnaire mailed to approximately 1 in 6 households and statistically weighted to reflect results for the entire country.

But the long form is dead. Instead, in 2010 everyone received the equivalent of what used to be called the “short form.” And this time it was even shorter, covering only home ownership, sex, age, race, ethnicity, household size, and relationships among people living in each household. While we need a full count for the purposes of population estimates, congressional apportionment and the allocation of over $400 billion in federal funds, what will we do without all that juicy data from the long form to analyze?

Celebrate! While we mourn the death of the long form, we can rejoice in the birth of the American Community Survey (ACS). Begun in 2005, this annual survey of 3 million American households is taking the place of the decennial long form by asking many of the same – and a few more – questions on social, economic, and demographic characteristics that have major implications for our nation’s future.

For a taste of what ACS data can reveal, see our major report released yesterday, The State of Metropolitan America and its accompanying interactive mapping website. We preview trends for this decade, by analyzing ACS data for 2008 and comparing it to results from Census 2000 on a variety of key indicators: population and migration, race and ethnicity, immigration, age, households and families, educational attainment, work, income and poverty, and commuting.