By on 3.22.22 in Uncategorized

Last week, the Census Bureau released the 2016-2020 5-Year American Community Survey data. Here’s what you need to know.

What is the American Community Survey?

The American Community Survey (ACS) is an ongoing survey that covers detailed social and economic topics, such as education, employment, internet access, and transportation. Each year*, the Census Bureau releases single-year estimates for places with populations of 65,000 or over and 5-year estimates for places with populations less than 65,000. (*The 2020 single-year estimates were not released due to the impacts of COVID-19 on data collection. Instead, the Bureau released experimental estimates.)

For more information about the ACS, see:

Is this the same as the 2020 Census?

No. The 2016-2020 ACS release is not 2020 Census data. However, it does use the 2020 Census boundaries for tracts and block groups. The tract and block group boundaries change each decade, so this represents the first detailed demographic, economic, and social characteristics for these subcounty areas.

How can I access the ACS data?

All tables for North Carolina, its counties, municipalities, and other geographies are available at You can access:

Is there anything new in this ACS release?

Several things are new in the 2016-2020 5-Year ACS release:

  1. Geographic boundary changes: This ACS release uses legal boundaries as of January 1, 2020, which means it is using the 2020 Census geographies for census tracts and block groups for the first time.
  2. Race and ethnicity changes: In 2020, the Census Bureau implemented changes in the way that individuals are asked about their race and ethnicity and the way these answers were processed and coded. Because of this, be cautious when comparing the racial/ethnic distribution of the 2016-2020 ACS with prior ACS releases. While demographic change is one factor driving changes, the Bureau noted that they expect changes in overall racial distributions “were largely due to the improvements to the design, processing and coding of the race and ethnicity questions.”
  3. Weighting methodology changes to account for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on data collection.

What does this mean? If you see major changes or issues, be cautious in interpreting them.

Does this help me understand the impacts of COVID-19 on population and the economy?

The ability to understand the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 are limited when using the 5-Year data file. In discussing the increase in median household income and decrease in poverty during 2016-2020 compared to 2011-2015, the Bureau notes:

…the ACS 5-year estimates are not designed to measure rapid change during short periods because the data come from a 5-year period. Although the most recent estimates contain data that include the economic shock from the COVID-19 pandemic, they also contain data collected in the final years (2016–2019) of the longest expansion in the history of U.S. business cycles. These data only reflect a small part of the impact of the pandemic on social, economic and housing measures.

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