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Timely Census Data, on a Roll

Ever since the first US Census was held in 1790, as the Constitution requires every 10 years, it has steadily evolved to include a wealth of useful information about the size and shape of America's rapidly shifting and changing population and demographics.

But even when current census data is distributed, it's often late, especially in helping officials make decisions in allocating federal dollars. In 2002, for instance, those relying on census statistics to distribute some $200 billion in federal funds were basing their decisions on 1990 data, simply because no other study had the census's block-by-block detail.

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Working from such a faded picture is kind of like governing blindfolded.

But enter the American Community Survey (ACS). Last month, and for the first time ever, the Census Bureau began an annual mailing of the ACS to 3 million households to provide more timely and accurate characteristics of the US population. The ACS represents nearly an exact copy of the decennial census long form that includes vital demographic, social, economic, and housing data.

Using the ACS, state and local officials, community leaders, planners, and businesses can better assess needs, such as where to build a new school, firehouse, or police station, highway, or allow a new business.

But beware. The ACS also probably means marketers will have more detailed and timely ammunition to parse demographic data as they target potential consumers. Still, the mandatory survey (recipients must respond or face a fine) represents a big step forward for the Census Bureau, one that deserves public support.