Census: What the New Count Will Mean for Appalachia in the 21st Century

It’s Census time! People have received their forms, 20% have returned them already and the official Census date of April 1 is fast approaching.

The Census is vitally important to our democracy as it determines political representation and federal funding for programs large and small.

But data geeks are worried about what new census procedures will mean for rural communities. Some of us who participated in last week’s Appalachian Studies meetings talked about other efforts to measure progress in the region, but we all share some concern about census changes.

The more detailed information that public and private agencies use to establish need for more specified programs like housing rehabilitation, weatherization, food supports and public transportation will be collected from now on by the American Community Survey on an annual basis.

Sounds great! Yearly data on all these important, if minute, factoids. Not so much for small rural communities. For these communities 3-year averages or, in the case of really small locales, 5-year averages will replace the decennial data point.

This sounds nice. We won’t have to wait ten years between data sets. But it means there will be a lag in the mesaures and that the numbers will always contain 3-5 years of history. Moreover, small sample areas will suffer from reliability problems that may make some of the data useless (if too few complete the surveys–the error margins are too large for the data to be useful).

Why should we care?
Those working on transitioning Appalachia to a new economic future may struggle to get accurate information on our areas of need and the progress we are making. To take advantage of annual updates, we will have to use Public Use Microdata Areas(PUMA), the boundaries of which don’t match our Appalachian regional and subregional boundaries. PUMA data will likely mask important county-level dynamics. We’re trading fairly robust 10-year point data across all counties for far less robust data, at 1-5 year intervals, depending on population size.

These changes will make it harder to be clear about what is happening in Central Appalachia.