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U.S. Census: People/Housing

Sources, information and How-To's regarding the United States Census - the Bureau and its programs.

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People and Housing


The United States Constituion mandates that a census be taken every ten years to determine the distribution of Congressional seats to states, make decisions about what community services to provide, and to distribute more than $400 billion in federal funds to local, state and tribal governments each year.  To accomplish this, the Census Bureau conduct two central programs: the Decennial Census and the American Community Survey.

The Decennial Census is what everyone commonly refers to as "the census."  It is conducted every ten years and its main purpose is to count the population in every geographic area of the United States.  The Decennial Census aims to count each and every person residing in the United States.

Since more information about the population beyond simply how many people are living here is needed to make policy and other decisions, the Census Bureau also asks supplementary questions of a sample of the population.  In censuses prior to 2010, these supplementary questions were asked as part of the Decennial Census.  In many areas of the country, though, the population changes considerably in ten years, so the information became old too quickly.

To address this problem, the Census Bureau created the American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS is a survey that is sent to a sample of the population every month.  Depending on the size (population) of an area, the results from the past 12, 36 or 60 months are combined to create one-, three- and five-year estimates.

There are two main differences between the Decennial Census and the American Community Survey:

  1. The census counts every person in the United States and can, therefore, be considered an exact number; the ACS is a sample survey and, therefore, can produce only estimates.
  2. The Census counts the population in a geographic area, the ACS describes the population in a geographic area.


The main Census pages are:

These pages will help you make the best use of census data:

Other pages you might find useful are:

Be sure to look at our other Census-related pages under the "People/Housing" drop-down menu above.

Numeric Data Resources

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Paul Bern
Rm 556 E.S. Bird Library
222 Waverly Ave
Syracuse, NY 13244