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The Importance of the American Community Survey for Evidence-Based Policymaking

by Maya Brennan and Laura Williams, Center for Housing Policy

The Center for Housing Policy uses data from the American Community Survey (ACS) on topics such as housing costs, incomes, and employment to support evidence-based policy solutions that allow federal, state, and local governments to spend limited resources more wisely. The data make policy discussions more concrete by expanding knowledge of the struggles faced by working families, the parts of the nation that are more or less affordable to their residents, and the specific needs of special populations like our nation’s veterans.

The ACS has an essential role in several Center for Housing Policy reports that help policymakers allocate scarce resources and evaluate strategies for their communities. Some specific reports and analyses that would not exist without the ACS include:

  • Housing Landscape: Using ACS data on housing costs, employment and income, we document trends in housing costs and incomes for the nation as a whole, for each state, and for many metropolitan areas. In 2012, we found that 23.6 percent of working families (or 10.6 million households) are severely burdened by their housing costs – up from 21.8 percent (10.3 million households) in just two years. The ACS provides evidence to counter assumptions that housing is more affordable and demonstrates the need for policies that increase access to safe and affordable housing for working Americans. 
  • Housing for Veterans: America’s veterans have sacrificed much in service to the nation, yet ACS data show that more than 1.5 million veterans pay more than half of their income on housing. Without the ACS, policymakers might know the story of veterans’ homelessness, but would not know that affordable housing policies should also be part of an overarching strategy for taking care of our returning heroes. 
  • State and Local Data Reports: The Center’s Housing Research and Advisory Service uses data from the ACS to provide detailed reports about housing markets for states and local communities. Mayors’ offices, government agencies, and local housing organizations use these reports to target federal funding resources wisely and make decisions about local policy needs. The ACS data are an important resource for understanding local housing markets, where communities have become unaffordable to working families, where development could thrive, how to combat vacant and abandoned properties, and a number of other issues.

As a prior post on this blog noted, eliminating the ACS would impede our ability to know what the country needs, how the population is changing in between Censuses, and what policies and programs would be a good use of the nation’s limited resources. When funds are tight, it is more important than ever to use them wisely. The ACS allows governments, developers, and businesses to understand local conditions, develop smarter policies and programs, and reduce wasteful spending on approaches that are based on guesswork rather than facts.

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