An exciting Census plan

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It will be 2002 before detailed social and demographic data are available from the 17 million U.S. households that filled out the Census 2000 "long form." It's the first in 10 years. Imagine fresh Census data of this sort available to marketers and researchers every year. This is not a dream-but Congress may need a push from data users in business and local government to make it a reality.

Census officials next year will seek money from Congress to go national in 2003 with the new American Community Survey. Over a five-year cycle, it will sample 15 million U.S. households. Projectable data for large cities and other governmental units (65,000 population or more) would become available from the first year's data collection. Once three years of data are on hand, reports on smaller jurisdictions (20,000 to 65,000 population) would be available yearly, reflecting a moving three-year average. Data from the smallest towns and Census units (fewer than 20,000) would be available yearly once five years of data were collected.

In test since 1996, the ACS represents "the most significant innovation" in national data-collection efforts in half a century, according to former Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt. The ACS would replace the long-form sampling program that's been used since 1940. Not only would local governments, planners and marketers have a constant flow of data, the cost of running the ACS program would be half a billion dollars less over the 10-year Census cycle than the cost of the existing once-a-decade long-form system, Mr. Prewitt said.

Target Corp. Director-Research and Planning Joan Naymark, speaking at a briefing with Mr. Prewitt, was enthusiastic. ACS, she said, deserves "widespread business support" since it would permit "sound investment decisions" both in growing new areas and in older communities. For members of Congress, ACS would mean an annual expense of probably more than $130 million (rather than one large bill at Census time). And there no doubt will be privacy and other concerns raised by lawmakers.

But this is indeed an exciting opportunity-and one not to be ignored. People and organizations in advertising and marketing should be among its strongest backers.

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