Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On the Census and the American Community Survey

"Since the 1950s, the Census Bureau’s practice has been to hold decennial census data for 72 years after the date it was collected. This practice was instituted to protect the privacy of individuals who responded to the census, while allowing researchers, especially genealogists, to investigate their family histories. The ACS has determined that it, as the successor to the decennial census long form, will similarly hold its data for 72 years prior to releasing it to the public. "
American Community Survey
Operations Plan (pdf)
U.S. Department of Commerce
Economics and Statistics Administration
Release 1: March 2003

Unless that policy has changed, the information in the annual American Community Surveys will be released to genealogists in 72 years, the same as the decennial census. It’s only being issued to approximately 15% of the population (3% per year – in a five year cycle – with no repeated recipients.) This is roughly the same percentage who received the long form in 2000.

It is the information contained within the ACS and the old long form that has drawn most of the ire of some privacy advocates. I will go on record as saying I think this is justified. In an era of people living longer and longer lives, those who are 30 years or younger can expect it's not unlikely they will be alive in 72 years. While there aren't any questions there I'd hesitate answering, I cam imagine there are some people who might not want some of those answers revealed to the general public, even after they were deceased.

It’s great for the genealogists. And I also see the usefulness of the statistical data for the government (and those, such as non-profits, providing services to the community.)

However, recipients of the ACS, like the Census, are required by law to fill it out. And *if* the data will ultimately be made public, especially while some of the respondents will still be alive, many of the questions should be optional in my opinion.

Here’s a link to a PDF of the 2010 ACS

I would argue for some of the less objectionable information from older censuses that was moved to the long form, to be returned to the census. And the American Community Survey be used to ask those questions that are useful to the government statisticians, but which are deemed more private, and destroy those forms once the data is collected.


I cringe when on old censuses I see the question "Deaf, Dumb, Blind, Insane or Idiotic."

Those questions are being asked on the ACS...of course, in more sensitive terms, but they're being asked.

Working for a social services providing non-profit, I am grateful for the statistical data the census produces. It's easy for us to know how many people locally need services X, and to prove this to potential funders.

I have no problem with all the financial and disability data being collected. But it seems to me to be the most personal of the questions, and while a lot of the financial information is public, not all of it is.

Those with the most embarrassing answers are the ones who need to be counted the most, so if they were reassured that the information would be destroyed after the data collected, that would make them more inclined to tell the truth.

Genealogists don't need this information. It expands our knowledge of our ancestors, but it's not necessary information.

1 comment:

Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

There are a few questions that I could see people not wanting to answer, depending on their answer. Many of the answers would be a matter of public record anyway, such as the land questions. Because I was born just a few months before a census I expect to be able to see at least the first two censuses that I appeared on and possibly three but any information about me at the age of 2 or 12 shouldn't be a big deal if it is shared in my lifetime.