Census Data

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Census Data

The U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 2) mandates that a census ("enumeration") of the population be conducted at 10-year intervals. The first census took place in 1790; U.S. marshals went door to door to get the count.

To streamline and speed up the process, Congress established a census office within the Department of the Interior in 1880 for that year's census; it was staffed by professionals for the first time rather than U.S. marshals' agents. In 1902 Congress created a permanent Census Office in the Department of Commerce and Labor. When the Department of Labor split from this department in 1913, the Bureau of the Census stayed in "Commerce." As an element of the Department of Commerce, the Bureau of the Census was also charged by Congress to conduct the Economic Census which takes place at five-year intervals (years ending in 2 and 7). Commerce tracks the economy as a whole and publishes the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) data at quarterly intervals.

After Congress created the Department of Labor, DOL established its own extensive statistical element, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). BLS tracks labor issues, compensation, and pricing. It is the agency which publishes the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Other federal departments have developed substantial, formal statistical organizations as well, among them notably the departments of Agriculture, Education, Energy, Interior, Justice, Health and Human Services, and Transportation. Statistics in some form are available from virtually all other federal agencies as well, but these are somewhat less formally managed and offered and may be more difficult for the small business owner to find.

Federal statistics are the most complete and comprehensive sources of data available to the small business at the right price: free. Some costs are involved for the publication itself (which may take the form of a printed book, pamphlet, CD, or computer tape), but no payment is required for the substantial work that goes into every survey. Virtually all published data are available for the nation as a whole, for states, for counties, and (for the population census) down to the census tract level, an area of a few blocks. Data are reasonably current. The Bureau of the Census (as well as BLS) conduct a partial survey in between census years. These are used to extrapolate data for the U.S. as a whole.


Many advertising, architectural, consulting, economic research, educational, engineering, market research, polling, surveying, and training organizations are small businesses themselves. For this community of users, census data and their counterparts in other agencies are often a major input toor the very raw material ofthe work product that they create. Such businesses, of course, make it their business to understand the data sources, the many intricate problems of data and how to work around them, and, of course, where to get what in what format.

A small business in some other line of work may, however, with relatively low investment in learning, begin to use census data in assessing its market and competition. A starting point might be the Census Bureau's annual County Business Patterns series. The CBP provides data at the county, metropolitan, or zip code level on a number of establishments by industry, employment, and payroll data. Several years' worth of data are usually available so that comparisons can be made year to year. The most recent data will be three years old. Using his or her own county, town, or zip code, the business owner can rapidly get a feel for the competition, the average number of people it employs, and what employees are paid on average. The only requirement is that the owner must know the numerical code for his or her business. Industries are classified using the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS). Getting data on one's NAICS codeand downloading data on one's own industrycan be easily done on the Internet. Internet "fluency," however, is a requirement. The alternative to online searching is to obtain data on paper from the nearest large public library with a department for federal documents.

Data on the size of the market, the housing and income characteristic of one's area, on growth or decline trends in an industry, on money spent on labor, supplies, or capital investmentsall this and considerably more are available. It is a law of information science that information is defined by context. Federal data are richly available. Which source might help the small business will depend on the context of its search. Questions about pricing, for instance, can be answered by exploring BLS data. Questions on transportation can be explored using Department of Transportation statistics.


The business seeking information about another company specifically or on a range of companies by name will discover that census data hide any and all information that may reveal the particular operational numbers for a single business. Thus if a zip code has only one participant in a NAICS industry, the County Business Patterns, for instance, will "hide" the results in a higher NAICS code rather than let the public know how many employees ABC Inc. has and what it pays them. Federal data are most useful for discovering broader trends in markets, prices, employment, output, and purchasing. Specific company-level intelligence may also be available, but only if the company is publicly traded and falls under the regulation of the Securities and Exchange Commission. In such a case, the small business can obtain the filings of that company with the SEC.

Many people, encountering federal data for the first time, also complain that "the statistics are old." Indeed, it takes substantial effort and time to collect statistics from millions of businesses or individuals, to process these data, and then to make them available in printed or electronic forms. Thus three- or four-year-old federal data are "fresh," indeed the most up-to-date available anywhere. Whenever more recent data are cited, they are based on extrapolations and estimates, not genuine enumeration such as the Constitution requires.


U.S. Bureau of the Census. 200 Years of Census Taking: Population and Housing Questions, 17901990. 1989.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. County Business Patterns. Available from http://www.census.gov/epcd/cbp/view/cbpview.html. Retrieved on 27 January 2006.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. Available from http://www.census.gov/index.html. Retrieved on 27 January 2006.

U.S. Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Available from http://www.bls.gov/. Retrieved on 27 January 2006.

                                Hillstrom, Northern Lights

                                 updated by Magee, ECDI

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