10 Ways Local Governments are Using Census Data


  • Abygail C. Mangar
  • Dana Watters
January 5, 2022 - (7 min read)

For many residents, the Census is a once-a-decade operation they rarely need to think about. For the local governments serving them, though, data from the decennial census and other Census Bureau surveys provide critical information needed to make informed decisions and policies.

While the main field operations of the decennial census were completed in October 2020, the post-census data processing, data analysis and product releases have continued through 2021 and will keep going well into 2022. Additionally, there are the ongoing state and local redistricting processes that many NLC members are undertaking across the country.

Though the decennial census receives big headlines when it’s active in the field, the American Community Survey (ACS) is worthy of equal attention from municipalities. The ACS is conducted annually and the results are rolled out in annual and five-year sets. Answers to the ACS’ dozens of questions provide municipalities with the kind of detailed community-level population data critical for city planning, including information on languages spoken, types of housing, employment status and fields and veteran status. Furthermore, both the decennial census and the ACS are among the primary data sources for the allocation of over $1.5 trillion in federal funding.

How Cities Put Census Data to Work

Asheville, NC – Data Source: American Community Survey

The City of Asheville developed new ways to improve racial equity in the community using data-based approaches. Using ACS and decennial census block-group data, as well as city infrastructure and police department data, city staff determined how to prioritize sidewalk construction and repairs by creating “a neighborhood-oriented weighted analysis” that explicitly included racial equity data. In another project, the city compared census block groups to determine which neighborhoods were most in need of broadband services.

Bozeman, MTData Source: 2020 Decennial Census

The 2020 census data showed that the City of Bozeman had grown to over 50,000 residents, making it eligible to be classified as a metropolitan statistical area (MSA). The city is now studying census data to determine whether it can be classified as an entitlement city, meaning that if the city’s population has certain poverty levels, it will be eligible for federal funding to improve services and economic development in support of these low-income residents.

Chattanooga, TNData Source: 2020 Decennial Census

City of Chattanooga officials relied on 2020 decennial census data to determine how representative a randomly selected sample of its residents for a community survey were of the city’s population as a whole. 10,000 residents responded to survey questions about their quality of life, such as satisfaction with the services provided by the city. In comparing with the census data, the city understood that those who returned the surveys tended to be older, better-educated, more likely to identify as female and less likely to be a member of a racial minority than the city’s population as a whole.

Detroit, MIData Source: 2010 Decennial Census

A suspected undercount in the 2010 census of the City of Detroit’s population left the city just short of the 750,000 people required to be eligible for a grant for prevention of childhood lead poisoning from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the same year that the city was denied the grant funding, more than 1,600 children under the age of six in Detroit were found to have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood. The $1.3 million grant would have provided more staff and resources devoted to preventing childhood lead poisoning, including testing and data collection, showing how important a full and accurate count is in the decennial census.

McKinney, TXData Sources: 2010 and 2020 Decennial Censuses, 2017 Population Estimates, American Community Survey

The City of McKinney’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan uses population growth rates and demographic data to identify the best uses of undeveloped land and to zone that land accordingly. Decisions around how to mitigate increased traffic associated with population growth and new uses of land—such as adding a toll to a local highway—are informed by data from the 2010 and 2020 censuses. The average age of residents—information that comes from decennial census data—allows planners to forecast workforce growth, while data on income from the American Community Survey informs the addition of diversified housing options.

Memphis, TNData Source: 2020 Decennial Census

The Memphis City Council, along with local residents and businesses, are using 2020 census data to decide where to build new gas stations. City council members used census data to compare the racial demographics of census tracts and have shared their concerns about the impact of new gas stations and used tire shops on communities of color. A comparison of two census tracts, for example, showed a disproportionately high concentrations of these kinds of businesses in predominately Black neighborhoods, raising questions about public safety and environmental justice.

New York City, NYData Source: 2020 Decennial Census

The New York City Department of Planning compiled a 2020 census results report that analyzed key population and housing characteristics to understand changes that have occurred since the 2010 census, as well as expected trends and strategies for the next era of neighborhood challenges and needs. The city’s summary highlights population changes by borough, city and neighborhood with critical attention to racial and ethnic backgrounds and age. The Department of Planning used this data to create several maps to visualize and highlight the changes.

Phoenix, AZData Source: 2020 Decennial Census

The 2020 census data revealed that the City of Phoenix grew faster than any other city of its size in the past decade. The city is now using census data to understand its workforce habits to reevaluate the city’s transportation infrastructure, particularly its mass transit. Given the interconnections between land use, water resources, transportation and safety, the city is using the 2020 census data to inform its first-ever human services master plan. The data will inform ideas such as senior meal services, transit and programming for preschool-aged children.

Santa Ana, CAData Source: 2010 Decennial Census; 2020 Decennial Census will be used to update analysis

Orange County Environmental Justice, a local nonprofit, partnered with University of California – Irvine researchers and other community members to study the lead levels in soils across the City of Santa Ana. Census data was used to find trends related to environmental justice issues, such as the majority of houses in Santa Ana being built before the 1978 federal ban on lead-based paint. This confirmed a serious equity concern in Santa Ana, given a significant population of residents who are undocumented. As a city filled with predominantly low-income neighborhoods of Latinx residents, the lead housing presents a disparate vulnerability to a marginalized population.

Wenham, MAData Sources: 1990, 2000, 2010 Decennial Censuses; American Community Survey 2012-2016

The Town of Wenham completed mixed quantitative and qualitative analyses to learn how to plan for its evolution into an age and dementia-friendly community. The ACS and decennial census data from the last 40 years were used to illustrate both the recent and anticipated age demographic changes in the town and to highlight the need to plan for its aging population.

Though the 2030 census feels like an eternity away, local planning for the next decennial census begins years in advance, with stakeholder groups already thinking ahead based on their lessons learned from the 2020 Census. Indeed, the challenges that accompanied the 2020 Census highlight the value of early planning and thorough preparation. Ideally, cities, towns and villages will continue to keep their recent census partnership network warm now and throughout the decade, and start laying the structured groundwork for the decennial census in 2027. In the interim, the ACS is an ongoing relevant exercise and community members will undoubtedly need guidance and reassurance when they first encounter the questionnaire. It is vital to the success of every Census Bureau survey that local governments communicate how and why census data is important and the benefits that residents gain when they respond.

Share With Us

Is your city, town or village using Census data to innovate and better serve your residents? We’d love to hear about it.

About the Authors

Abygail C. Mangar

About the Authors

Abygail C. Mangar is a program manager within NLC’s Center for City Solutions.

Dana Watters

Dana Watters is the Program Manager for Local Democracy Initiative’s Cities Count and Cities Vote programs at the National League of Cities.