Former Research Associate
Each year, a representative sample of 3.5 million addresses nationwide is randomly selected to participate in the American Community Survey (ACS), which provides information on the economic, social, housing, and demographic characteristics of communities on a continuous basis.1 Data from the ACS influences how more than $675 billion in federal and state funds are spent each year. For the ACS to be a rich, valuable source of information for local communities, it must occasionally be revised to reflect our changing nation. A revised question can be clearer, easier to understand, and yield a higher response rate; revisions may also remove outdated and irrelevant phrasing in questions and instructions. For those who study trends, changes to survey questions—like the changes to the measurement of disability in the 2008 ACS—pose challenges if the revised questions result in estimates no longer being comparable across years.2 For this reason, changes are not made lightly but to improve the quality of the data.
The process of revising the content, including adding a question, typically takes place over a five-year period and involves content tests to ensure that each question and any revisions contain accurate wording, optimal formatting, and appropriate placement.3
The 2019 ACS questionnaire and forthcoming versions of the survey include multiple content changes. The Census Bureau’s proposed changes to the questions were posted in a December 2017 Federal Register notice and open to public comment through mid-February 2018.4 In March 2018, the Census Bureau posted the planned questions of the 2019 survey, including changes to several questions.5
The Relationships question includes new response categories to improve estimates of coupled households, specifically same-sex couples. For respondents who answer electronically, the survey also includes an automated relationship/sex consistency check to improve accuracy. For example, if an inconsistency exists with the reported sex of an individual and whether their relationship was reported as “Opposite-sex” or “Same-sex” husband/wife/spouse or unmarried partner, the respondent is prompted to make a revision so their sex and relationship responses are aligned.
The increase in cell phone usage has changed how people use and view telephones in households. The telephone question was redesigned to provide clarity and reduce confusion. The question’s intention is to measure a household’s ability to communicate and access services.
Following the health insurance coverage question, a new query asks about health insurance premiums paid and subsidies received. Its aim is to gather additional information about coverage categories and improve understanding of health insurance exchanges, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
The 2016 American Community Survey Content Test tested several additional changes to the health insurance coverage question.6 For example, response categories were reordered, and new instructions were added to clarify that the question only asked about comprehensive health insurance coverage. However, none of these changes were implemented in the 2019 questionnaire.
To reflect changes in public transportation infrastructure, transit mode categories in the journey-to-work question were reworded and reordered. These improvements will provide more accurate data on how people travel throughout the course of a day.
Knowing what time of day people commute to work is useful information for transportation planners. However, in the past this question has raised privacy concerns.
The question instructions concerning weeks worked were revised to better understand characteristics of full-time and part-time workers. The revisions will allow analysts to calculate summary statistics of the number of weeks worked (for example, means and medians). Additional clarification is provided to define what to count as “work.”
The class-of-worker question series was edited to provide clarity, refine definitions, and improve overall layout. The instructional text was edited, and simplified general headings were added to group class-of-worker categories.
Research results suggested that the industry and occupation questions were unclear to respondents and did not provide accurate data. Examples were added or revised to improve the quality of the information received.
Over the past few decades, the number of defined contribution retirement plans, such as 401(k) plans, increased in popularity while pensions became less common. To improve income reporting and response rates for the retirement income questions, examples were edited to include more common plans.
Respondents self-identify racial and ethnic origins on the ACS questionnaire. The 2016 ACS Content Test included a combined race and Hispanic origin question.7 While this change was not implemented, the 2019 ACS and 2020 Census questionnaires will include slightly modified questions about Hispanic origin and race.