Patterns and causes of uncertainty in the American Community Survey

Seth E. Spielman, David Folch, Nicholas Nagle

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

177 Scopus citations


In 2010 the American Community Survey (ACS) replaced the long form of the United States decennial census. The ACS is now the principal source of high-resolution geographic information about the U.S. population. The margins of error on ACS census tract-level data are on average 75 percent larger than those of the corresponding 2000 long-form estimate. The practical implications of this increase is that data are sometimes so imprecise that they are difficult to use. This paper explains why the ACS tract and block group estimates have large margins of error. Statistical concepts are explained in plain English. ACS margins of error are attributed to specific methodological decisions made by the Census Bureau. These decisions are best seen as compromises that attempt to balance financial constraints against concerns about data quality, timeliness, and geographic precision. In addition, demographic and geographic patterns in ACS data quality are identified. These patterns are associated with demographic composition of census tracts. Understanding the fundamental causes of uncertainty in the survey suggests a number of geographic strategies for improving the usability and quality ACS.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)147-157
Number of pages11
JournalApplied Geography
StatePublished - Jan 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • American Community Survey
  • Census tract
  • Margin of error
  • Small area estimation
  • Uncertainty

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • General Environmental Science
  • Tourism, Leisure and Hospitality Management


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