Monday, November 19, 2012

The Rural Differential: Drilling down into the data

By Kathy Miller, RUPRI Program Director

We are introducing a new monthly blog post that will focus on "the rural differential". Each month, we will focus on a particular social, economic, or demographic indicator and examine what the data shows us about rural America.

For this very first edition of The Rural Differential, I thought we should talk about data in general. Where do we get data for rural America?

While most national data sets do include some geographic comparison level (mostly metropolitan and nonmetropolitan), we often need to drill down to small area data, usually county level, to really understand the conditions and trends in rural America. This allows us to not only see national level trends, but also differences across regions and states. Plus, small area data lets us create maps. Maps often tell the story better than any table, chart or graph.

So where do we go for small area data? Mostly, we use the American Community Survey (ACS) from the U.S. Census Bureau.

American Community Survey, you ask? Haven’t heard of it? This is the way the Census Bureau collects all the detailed information – everything from housing conditions to ancestry.

That information used to be collected in the once-a-decade long form, but we needed more timely data to understand conditions and trends, and to make decisions about how to spend federal dollars. A study by the Brookings Institution found that over $400 billion in federal dollars is allocated based on ACS data. Instead of collecting this information once every 10 years, the Census Bureau is now collecting the data continuously, and then aggregating over time for accurate estimates that are much more frequent.

Sounds great, no?

Well… there’s a bit of a catch to “frequent.” In lots of rural places, data has to be collected over a lot longer period than in more populated places in order to obtain a reliable estimate.. In most counties, in fact, it takes five years to get a reliable estimate.

So, think about a large county in the West. We’re already averaging data over a large geographic space, but now we’re averaging it over time as well. And think about what a five year span can represent: 2005 to 2009 had some good years and some really bad years in it.

Frequency of ACS estimates by county (click to see an enlarged map)
So, while it’s true that there is absolutely an inequity between rural and urban places. Urban areas have more timely data, let’s be clear that this doesn’t outweigh the overall benefits of the ACS. The bottom line is that this data is indeed more timely. Even if we can’t get annual estimates for all places, at least we’re seeing more current and more accurate data.

It’s not perfect data – there’s no such thing as perfect data – but for understanding rural America, this data is absolutely essential.

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