One of the unique aspects about the United States is that we have been an informed democracy from the start. James Madison, credited with writing most of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, added questions to the nation's first census in 1790, which was overseen by Thomas Jefferson. Both of these founding fathers understood the importance of having information on the nation's progress. In that census we learned how many military-aged men there were in the country. The 1810 Census obtained information on manufacturing for the first time. Ten years later, we gained insights on industry because respondents were asked if they were engaged in agriculture, commerce, or manufacturing activities.
The collection, processing, and distribution of census statistics have also evolved over the past two centuries. In the 1790 Census, U.S. Marshals were tasked with asking the questions. In 1830, a uniform census form was used for the first time. For the 1890 count, a census employee by the name of Herman Hollerith designed electric machines that greatly sped up data tabulation, allowing for the processing and publishing of the results to be completed ahead of schedule and under budget. Today, it remains the job of the U.S. Census Bureau to collect information about the nation. In addition to the population census taken every 10 years as required by the U.S. Constitution, the Census Bureau conducts other censuses and surveys, including an economic census beginning this year. One very important survey is the American Community Survey (ACS).
The ACS, which replaces the census sample survey—commonly known as the “long-form”—used from 1940 to 2000, is a yearly survey that today is sent to about 3.5 million households. In addition to basic demographic information like age, sex, race and ethnicity, it collects information on educational attainment, occupation, income, veteran status, disabilities, and health insurance status. The Census Bureau reports these characteristics about the population on a yearly basis down to the community level. The billions of ACS statistics are used to make funding, programmatic, and business decisions by governments at all levels as well as the private sector. Starting next year, there will be an Internet response option for the ACS, another step in the innovation of data collection.
Here is an example of the type of information available from the ACS. In 2009, we began asking respondents what type of bachelor’s degrees they had. Results reported earlier this year reveal that of the 56 million people aged 25 and over with a bachelor’s degree, nearly 20 million of them held a degree in a science and engineering field. The 2009 ACS also showed that people with only a bachelor’s degree in science and engineering tended to earn much more than people with only a bachelor’s degree in education ($63,000 compared with $42,000). It also gives clues on the future workforce when, as in the chart below, it shows how younger women have increasingly gravitated towards degrees in science and engineering.
The Census Bureau will continue to lead the way in collecting and analyzing data to tell America about our people, places and economy. That is in the spirit of being an informed democracy and right in line with what Jefferson and Madison would want us to do.
James Treat is Chief of the American Community Survey Office at the US Census Bureau.