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Next Steps on the American Community Survey Disability Questions

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Agencies propose question revisions using rigorous justification criteria motivated by statutory obligations and judicial mandates. Image for illustration purposes
Agencies propose question revisions using rigorous justification criteria motivated by statutory obligations and judicial mandates. Image for illustration purposes
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By: Robert L. Santos, Director, U.S. Census Bureau

The American Community Survey (ACS) is the premier source for detailed population and housing information about our nation and the only source of local estimates for most of the 40-plus topics it covers. Adding a question or making a change to the ACS involves extensive testing, review and evaluation over a 5-year period. (The current ACS question revisions under consideration were first proposed in 2018.) Over 25 federal agencies participate in this process and make recommendations to the Interagency Council on Statistical Policy’s Subcommittee on the ACS (ICSP-SACS), which is co-chaired by the Chief Statistician of the United States and the U.S. Census Bureau director.

Agencies propose question revisions using rigorous justification criteria motivated by statutory obligations and judicial mandates. This represents the primary purpose for the ACS content, much like the primary purpose for a decennial census is for congressional apportionment (per the U.S. Constitution). But similar to the decennial population enumeration, ACS data have found many critical secondary uses for policymaking, community planning, economic development and local governance to name a few uses.

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The process for altering ACS content is designed to help ensure that any proposed changes are necessary and will produce quality, useful information for the nation. An important step in the process is providing an opportunity for the public to provide feedback. We do this through publishing a series of Federal Register notices that invite public comments on proposed changes and methods. We then consider that feedback in developing a final content revision recommendation for submission to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

On behalf of the Census Bureau, the ICSP-SACS, and the entire federal statistical system that relies on ACS data, we’d like to thank you for your interest in the ACS program and sharing your feedback on the most recent proposed changes. Soliciting feedback is a crucial step in our process.

The current ACS content revision cycle focuses on changes to several existing topics: disability, household roster, educational attainment, health insurance coverage and labor force questions. We’re also proposing adding three new questions on solar panels, electric vehicles and sewage disposal. These changes would begin in 2025.

Today, I’d like to update you on the next steps of the revision process, particularly as they relate to the disability content. I know many stakeholders and members of the public care deeply about this topic.

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The Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) have carefully reviewed the public feedback. Based on that feedback, we plan to retain the current ACS disability questions for collection year 2025. Along with our colleagues at OMB, NCHS and other statistical agencies, we will continue our work with stakeholders and the public to better understand data needs on disability and assess which, if any, revisions are needed across the federal statistical system to better address those needs. 

The Census Bureau is also preparing a final proposal to OMB for approval regarding the changes proposed to the other topics (i.e., household roster, educational attainment, health insurance coverage, labor force questions, solar panels, electric vehicles and sewage disposal).

The final proposal will be submitted to OMB in spring 2024 and be accompanied by a Federal Register notice detailing the final recommendations and seeking public comment.

Disability Content

In a Federal Register notice posted in October 2023, we proposed changing the ACS questions on disability to a set of questions based on the Washington Group Short Set (WG-SS) on functioning. That proposal would have aligned us with international standards from the United Nations and advances in measuring disability. The Census Bureau received more than 12,000 comments in response to the Federal Register notice outlining all of the proposed changes to the ACS. The comments can be found at regulations.gov. The majority of them expressed concerns with the proposed changes to the disability questions. 

Themes we saw in the comments included:

  • Desire for more comprehensive public engagement.
  • Concern that the existing and proposed questions do not measure more or all types of disabilities.
  • Concern regarding a break in the data series if the questions changed, including difficulties comparing data on disability pre-2025 with 2025 and beyond, and a gap in availability of 5-year data products featuring lower-level geography until 2030.
  • Requests for and questions about having multiple estimates that reflect the graded response categories in the WG-SS questions. The response categories include: no difficulty, some difficulty, a lot of difficulty and cannot do at all.
  • Concern that the proposed use of the international standard cutoff for disability that does not include people reporting “some difficulty,” would decrease the estimate of people living with disabilities.
  • A question change could potentially impact program funding and services.

Next Steps: More Feedback and Engagement

Before the Census Bureau submits the final proposal for the 2025 ACS content for OMB’s approval, it will offer another opportunity for the public to provide feedback. As mentioned above, in spring 2024, the Census Bureau will publish a 30-day Federal Register notice summarizing the proposed 2025 ACS content, which will not include any changes to the existing disability questions. The Census Bureau will then review the feedback and submit the final proposed content for OMB review and approval.  

The Census Bureau also wants to engage further with the public on the disability topic specifically. A significant theme in the Federal Register notice comments is a desire for more comprehensive engagement. In the spirit of a whole-of-government approach, the Census Bureau, NCHS, OMB and other federal partners are working together to make that happen.

Moreover, this spring, the Census Bureau, NCHS and OMB plan to convene a meeting with federal agency disability stakeholders, disability community representatives, data users, researchers and disability advocates. The purpose is to discuss data needs and data uses surrounding the topic of disability. More details on the meeting will be provided soon. 

Finally, I’d like to note we embrace continuous improvement. Going forward, the Census Bureau will recommend the ICSP-SACS consider revisions to the protocols to enhance collaboration with data users and other stakeholders at the beginning of, and during, the ACS content change process.  

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