What New Census Data Means for Marketers

Five-year American Community and 2010 population estimates? What to do with all this new information.

By Published on .

The five-year data from the American Community Survey (ACS) was released this morning. Last week the Census Bureau did something it had never done before. It set out a set of five alternative estimates of the U.S. population on April 1, 2010 just a few weeks before the Bureau will begin publishing the results of the 2010 Census. What should marketers do with all this new data?

The first thing to note is that THIS IS NOT 2010 CENSUS data. Let's say that again. THIS IS NOT 2010 CENSUS data. The ACS data are based on the 2005-2009 ACS surveys, taking a sample of the American population and asking them many of the questions that used to be on the now-extinct "long form" of the Census. The good news is that we get data every year now instead of every 10 years. The bad news is that the ACS only covers larger geographies and larger population centers, and even those figures start having large margin of errors once you segment the population based on race, ethnicity, income and other factors.

Ad Age's new Census tool, MarketFinder, is based on this data, but excludes data that winds up being misleading because of these high margins of error.

Estimated U.S. Population Growth
Age 2010 Population Change from 2000 % change
< 5 21.2 2.0 10.6%
5-17 54.3 1.1 2.2%
18-24 30.1 3.0 11.0%
25-34 41.2 1.3 3.3%
35-44 41.1 -4.0 -8.9%
45-54 44.8 7.2 19.0%
55-64 35.8 11.5 47.3%
65-74 21.7 3.3 18.0%
75+ 18.3 1.7 10.0%
U.S. Total 308.5 27.0 9.6%

This is the first time the Census has released five-year ACS data, which averages each of the five most-recent ACS to create a more robust sample, allowing the Census to make projections in smaller geographies. So this is the first tract-level data we've seen since 2000 and the only way we will get tract-level data on a large number of social and demographic factors that are important to marketers and demographers alike.

It's a mixed blessing. There's always the trap of "some data is better than no data," but is that really the case when the number of single-person black households in Naperville, IL (pop. 141,644) is listed as 501 with a margin of error of +/- 198? Is it better than using five- to 10-year-old data as had been the case in the past?

Regardless, as a marketer, do you care about market segments or geographies that are that small?

Probably not. You're generally better off just using the one-year estimates in the 2009 ACS for detailed breakdowns and the 2010 Census data when it's released for broader trends across large geographies.

As for the five different estimates of the 2010 population, it's odd timing, and an oddly transparent look at how the Census sausage is made. Frankly, we'd prefer that the Census just handed us the finished product so we could enjoy our beef stick in peace. We'll get actual, non-estimate 2010 population state totals from the Census before the end of 2010, and other data later in the spring.

For now, we are left to pick the most plausible of the five estimates, which range from 305.7 million at the low end to 312.7 million at the high end. The three middle estimates were 307.4, 308.5, and 310.0 million U.S. residents on April 1.

For starters, the Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey and their population estimates program both say that the 2009 U.S. population was 307 million, up about 2.6 million from the previous year. This suggests that the 2010 Census will probably find between 309 and 310 million people here.

So perhaps we can toss out the low and high estimates as quite unlikely. The first is more than a million persons below the 2009 estimate and the second is 5.7 million above the 2009 estimate. Among the other three numbers the one that most closely follows the previously published year-to-year estimated population changes is the middle one: 308.5 million. The other two middle series numbers might turn out to be right, but our betting is on the horse in the middle.

The table below shows the estimated age distribution for that series as well as the estimated percent and numerical change from the 2000 Census. These estimates make official: over the next 20 years the 65-plus population will balloon. There's now only 40 million people age 65 or older, but there's 80.6 million baby boomers ages 45 to 64 who will soon start collecting their entitlement packages.

Adult members of Generations X and Y (ages 18 to 44) are estimated to number 112.5 million and they will be joined by another 75.5 children as they become adults. What the Census can't estimate is how Gen X & Y feel about paying so much of their future income for baby boomer entitlements as the first boomers reach age 65 in January 2011.

But unless you need all of these numbers today, you may be on safer ground using the 2009 population estimates on the Census site or waiting until the actual 2010 figures start rolling out later this month.

Ad Age Stat will start crunching through some of these new data sets and present some posts over the coming weeks about the data most critical to marketers. Stay tuned and follow @adagestat on Twitter.

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