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An Evaluation of Persons per Household (PPH) Estimates Generated by the American Community Survey: A Demographic Perspective


The American Community Survey (ACS) is a U. S. Census Bureau product designed to provide accurate and timely demographic and economic indicators on an annual basis for both large and small geographic areas within the United States. Operational plans call for ACS to serve not only as a substitute for the decennial census long-form, but as a means of providing annual data at the national, state, county, and subcounty levels. In addition to being highly ambitious, this approach represents a major change in how data are collected and interpreted. Two of the major questions facing the ACS are its functionality and usability. This paper explores the latter of these two questions by examining "persons per household (PPH)," a variable of high interest to demographers and others preparing regular post-censal population estimates. The data used in this exploration are taken from 18 of the counties that formed the set of 1999 ACS test sites. The examination proceeds by first comparing 1-year ACS PPH estimates to Census 2010 PPH values along with extrapolated estimates generated using a geometric model based on PPH change between the 1990 and 2000 census counts. Both sets of estimates are then compared to annual 2001-2009 PPH interpolated estimates generated by a geometric model based on PPH from the 2000 census to the 2010 census. The ACS PPH estimates represent what could be called the "statistical perspective" because variations in the estimates of specific variables over time and space are viewed largely by statisticians with an eye toward sample error. The model-based PPH estimates represent a "demographic perspective" because PPH estimates are largely viewed by demographers as varying systematically and changing relatively slowly over time, an orientation stemming from theory and empirical evidence that PPH estimates respond to demographic and related determinants. The comparisons suggest that the ACS PPH estimates exhibit too much "noisy" variation for a given area over time to be usable by demographers and others preparing post-censal population estimates. These findings should be confirmed through further analysis and suggestions are provided for the directions this research could take. We conclude by noting that the statistical and demographic perspectives are not incompatible and that one of the aims of our paper is to encourage the U. S. Census Bureau to consider ways to improve the usability of the 1-year ACS PPH estimates. © 2012 Springer Science+Business Media B.V.

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