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Every means I can find to access data on the US Census website wants me to put in some sub-national geographic level at some point. Even if I do this, I usually wind up with a giant list of tables, many with nearly identical names.

Is there no straightforward to say "I want data X about region Y, grouped by subregion Z, give it to me now, please and thank you"? Importantly, Y may be "the entire United States", and ideally, X may include multiple data points. Examples of what I mean would be:

  • I want the population of the entire United States, grouped by county.
  • I want the ages of people in Alaska, grouped by Census Tract.
  • I want the ages and income of people in California, grouped by Census Blocks.
  • I want the household income and household size of people in the entire United States, grouped by congressional district.

(Ideally, I would also be able to add another dimension to the query, namely the census year from which I want the data.)

All of these queries have the same simple form, but I cannot find any way to directly get the answers to them via the Census website. For instance, as far as I can see, to answer a question like the last one, I would have to download separate tables for each state, and possibly two separate tables for each state (one for income and one for household size) and then manually collate them.

I realize that some combinations of data may not be available for some levels of granularity, but even a straightforward response of "The data you want is not available" would be an improvement. As it is, I can never tell whether the data really isn't accessible, or is just buried on page 5000 out of 10000 pages of search results.

Am I missing something, or is it just a pain in the neck to get this data? Is anyone able to make practical use of the data without endless fiddling to find the right tables, and then more fiddling to link up data from different tables?

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TLDR: Census data is complicated.


The simplest actual answer to your question: If you type in "united states" on the front page of American FactFinder, you can get to the "Community Facts" page for the US, which has direct links to several kinds of data at the national level.


Probably way more than you really wanted to know:

More generally, Census data is a very simple phrase behind which lies a ton of variety, nuance and detail. I've spent several years now working on various projects to make Census data easier to use, and it's harder than you would guess. Even a straightforward concept like "population" has multiple answers from the US Census: every ten years the Decennial census comes up with one count; annually, the American Community Survey (ACS) estimates the population using a different methodology, and every month, the Population Estimates program produces its own numbers. Oh, and also monthly the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics update the Current Population Survey (CPS) which has its own total population number.

Is there no straightforward to say "I want data X about region Y, grouped by subregion Z, give it to me now, please and thank you"? Importantly, Y may be "the entire United States", and ideally, X may include multiple data points.

data X

For the American Community Survey alone, there are several hundred table variants, and several of the variants come in two forms, and some of them come in about 20 forms because they break down figures according to race or hispanic status. (In total, there are over 1400 tables in the ACS). Because the raw data can't be released for privacy protections, the Census needs to presumptively tabulate all the different kinds of cross-referenced data people might want. (And some of the data you may want is collected in the CPS or other programs.)

region Y

the Census Bureau data is tabulated into "summary levels" which represent different classes of geography. The ACS Glossary has a summary level list has 188 different kinds of value for Y, with hundreds of thousands of actual values. And there are more summary levels than on that list. The Missouri Census Data Center (MCDC) has delved into summary levels and tried to compile a master list which has 220 of them.

These lists are complicated for technical reasons (mostly to do with the next section) but even if you think in terms of simple shapes-on-a-map, there are about 30 basic geographies.

Also, for the US and for states, there's a separate concept ("geographic components") to do with "give me the total of data X for just the people living in "urban areas", or "not in a metropolitan or micropolitan statistical area". There are about 20 of these components.

grouped by subregion Z

only some Census geographies are by definition properly contained by specific other geographies. Cities (sumlevel 160, formally known as "places") cross census tract and county boundaries, adding a bit of complexity to one commonly desired grouping. And in some parts of the country, locally prevailing government systems make "places" a less appropriate way to break things up: things are different in many ways in New England, especially.

Oh, and "the census year from which I want the data." Census maps change every ten years, so data is not always comparable across Census releases. How you do your comparisons when that happens depends sometimes on whether you're looking at statistical areas like census tracts, or legal areas like states and counties. And the questions change too, not just the maps. In 2000, the Census Bureau allowed people to select more than one race, complicating comparison of new data with data collected before then.

Third Party Projects

A lot of people have worked on third-party projects to make Census data easier to use. I invite you to check out a project I've worked on called Census Reporter. It's limited to the American Community Survey for the foreseeable future. I'm proud of what we've done, and we get great feedback, but I know for a fact we have a long way to go to make it as easy to find tables as you (and I!) want.

Besides Census Reporter, there's a commercial project called Social Explorer which has done a lot of work to make the data more directly cross-comparable. You may be able to access it through your local library.

There are some other great projects which also take on these challenges, but which tend to be aimed at researchers who are more deeply invested. For example, the aforementioned MCDC, NHGIS, IPUMS, Census.IRE.org (which I also helped to make), and I'm sure more that I'm forgetting.

  • Thanks for this detailed answer. As far as your first point (the "simplest answer"), that doesn't seem to provide any way to break down by subregion (except for a few prefabricated data/region combos). The rest of your answer seems to be more about why the data is complicated. I agree with that, but the problem is that the interface to the data unnecessarily exposes too much of that complexity, in particular by shoving lists of tables at you, with no way to "drill down" into the subset of features which distinguish the remaining tables in your search. – BrenBarn Sep 9 '14 at 18:43
  • Like I said, Census Reporter is designed to make the data easier to use—to present an interface which reduces the complexity whenever possible. We aren't commercial and (after getting started by the generosity of the Knight Foundation), we aren't funded, but we are open source and welcome help from anyone who wants to participate. – Joe Germuska Sep 10 '14 at 14:47
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Disclaimer: I am co-founder of opengeocode.org

We've compiled an number of the US Census datasets into a CSV format with a common vocabulary for the data fields. This makes it straight forward to load some or all the datasets into a database and form corresponding queries.

You can find our datasets at: http://www.opengeocode.org/cude1.1/US%20Census/index.php

The definition of our vocabulary : http://www.opengeocode.org/cude1.1/LinkedCSV-Vocab.php

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