Survey Says! No Need to Wait for the Census

by William H. Frey | September 22, 2009

Almost since President Obama took office, there have been heated discussions over the 2010 census. Remember the kerfuffle over whether the White House would take direct control of administering the Census as an end-around then presumed Commerce secretary Republican Judd Gregg? Then there was the debate around “sampling” instigated by Republicans who believed that sampling for Census non respondents would inflate the counts in Democratic districts. The grounds for both fears turned out to be unfounded (Gregg withdrew his nomination and Democrat Gary Locke was appointed; and the new Census director stated quite plainly that there will be no statistical sampling). Still, all the squabbling was rooted in the important issue of reapportioning the seats of Congress among states, a matter of great concern to individual congressmen and their future job security.

Yet for most of us, the Census, for all practical purposes, came out yesterday in the form of the American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS won’t be used for congressional reapportionment, but it will now take the place of the Census by providing a ton of information that will be cut from the 2010 Census. (Although few people know it, the 2010 Census will no longer contain interesting questions on income, poverty, immigration, and marriage rates. It will barely do more than just count the number of people). And, unlike the Census, it comes out annually

Getting the results of the ACS is like getting a new census every year.  The most significant information we learned yesterday is that is that, for the first time in nearly 40 years, the foreign-born population in the United States likely declined (“likely” because the ACS contains a larger margin of error than the decennial Census). The impact of the recession, now possible to gauge from these annual data, was shown for both demographic groups and geography.

For example, we see that the largest decline in the foreign-born was, by far, from Mexico--a loss of more than 300,000. And 25 states saw declines in their foreign-born populations--with leaders being California, Florida, Michigan, and Arizona, states where low-skilled jobs especially have been on the decline. Among the nation’s largest 100 metros, 54 saw foreign born declines. Of these, metro Los Angeles took the biggest hit--losing over 100,000--followed by Phoenix, Detroit, Riverside, Calif., and Tampa, all areas which know better than most what the recession and mortgage meltdown was all about.

On the other hand, there were over 120,000 new immigrants from India, along with gains from places like Guatemala, Jamaica, Vietnam, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic.

And, of the metro areas which did gain foreign-born residents last year--Atlanta, Dallas and Houston--places where the economy was less severe led all others.

The implications of these economically related shifts in the foreign-born population for both hard-hit and not-so-hard-hit areas are certainly fodder for any renewed debate about immigration reform. 

Yet, aside from the immigration slowdown, the American Community Survey also monitored other impacts of the recession--showing downturns in local mobility, homeownership, driving to work, and even delayed marriage. These are all available for most of the geography you would normally expect from the Census. Except now with the ACS, we don’t have to wait.

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