This piece was originally published in January 2007.
It takes only a small dose of demographic data to transform an anecdote into a trend, confirm a great story idea or knock down a bad one.
The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS for short) can be a good source for general background about a community, or specific facts to buttress a story about children and families. The survey’s estimates for the nation, states, counties, cities, school districts, congressional districts, metropolitan areas and other levels of geography are updated each year. It now produces data for every community in the country with 65,000 people or more. The Census Bureau plans to use the survey in place of the long form in the 2010 census.
Here are some topics you can explore using ACS estimates:
Immigrants: You can look up the number of people under 18 or adults who were born abroad and whether they are citizens. How many children aren’t fluent in English? Which language do they speak at home?
Nursery and preschool enrollment: How many children attend nursery school or preschool in your community? How many of those children are from poor families or different racial groups?
New mothers: How many women had a baby in the last year in your state or area? How old were they? Were they married, and what was their race? Were they working? Were they citizens? Were they poor? How much education did they have? These numbers, though not official, have more demographic data on new mothers than you can get from the National Center for Health Statistics.
Grandparents: How many grandparents live with or take care of their grandchildren? Are they married, employed, disabled, living in poverty or homeowners? In some cases, you can look at the ages of the children being cared for, and their race or ethnic group.
Who moved in? You can find estimates for how many children moved to your area in the past year, and how old they were. How many moved from another
Are teens working? How many older teens – 16-to-19-year-olds – are considered idle, because they neither are in school nor in the labor force? This estimate could be useful in painting a portrait of the most disconnected youths.
What types of families do children live in? The survey’s detailed tables let you look at how many children live with married couples, or with single moms or dads. Or find how many children live in homes with unmarried couples, although details about their age, race, household incomes or other circumstances are not easily available. Obtaining that information would require using sophisticated statistical software to analyze individual, privacy-protected responses – don’t even think about it unless you are the newsroom data nerd.
How many children are disabled? You can find detailed data about disabled children and adults, including their type of disability. Keep in mind that the survey does not use an official standard, but lets respondents decide whether to call themselves (or their children) disabled. This self-identified definition of disability may differ from the one that school officials use in determining eligibility for special education, so do not be surprised if your local special education enrollment does not match the census figures.
What share of children in your area lives in households where two parents work? Or, looked at another way, how many working women have young children? Older children? No children living with them?
How well off are households children that live in? There are detailed estimates about poor children and their circumstances. These are not the official poverty statistics – those come from the Current Population Survey, which is released at the same time each summer as the American Community Survey. But the American Community Survey gives you more local-level detail. The survey also includes estimates for the share of children living in homes that receive food stamps, welfare or Supplemental Security Income. You can look at how many of those homes are headed by a married couple or single parent.
Despite its inviting qualities, the survey has limits. The survey results so far only count people in households, and do not include people living in institutions such as group homes, mental hospitals or college dormitories. That type of information is promised in later years.
Because this is a survey of a sample of households and not a complete count, all estimates have a margin of error, much as a political poll does. Keep this in mind when comparing two numbers, because those margins may overlap, meaning that the two numbers are not really different.
D’Vera Cohn, a consultant and writer, covered demographics for The
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