Understanding how census data can help in making planning decisions

Planners use census data to understand the social, economic, and demographic conditions in their communities.

The Measure Evaluation provides a brief but useful explanation of how planners use census data to make planning, policy and programming decisions. This information is helps new county commissioners, local elected officials and others understand how planners compile and analyze the data. This data is used in planning, programming, and policy reports submitted to elected officials and department heads for comments, recommendations and approvals.

The Measure Evaluation also provides recommendations on how to evaluate the quality of the census data and common mistakes that can lead to errors in data. The Measure Evaluation document describes various types of census data and the possible of uses of the data. The document states:

  • Total Population Size Data: When two or more census counts are compared for the same location, planners can determine if locales are increasing or decreasing in size.
  • Age and Sex Data: Used to help identify segments of the population that require different types of services.
  • Sex Data: Sex ratios can be calculated by 5-year age groups to crudely observe migration, especially among the working age cohorts.
  • Marital Status Data: Used to provide insights into family formation and housing needs.
  • Household Composition and Size Data: Used to help determine housing needs for related and unrelated households.
  • Education Attainment and Literacy Data: Used to provide information on the educational skills of the work force. These measures also help planners select the best strategies to communicate with residents.
  • Location of Residence and Place of Prior Residence Data: Helps assess changes in rural and urban areas. Place of prior residence helps to identify communities that are experiencing in- or out-migration.
  • Occupation and Labor Force Participation Data: Helps to provide insights into the labor force of a given locale. The information can be used to develop economic development strategies.
  • Living Quarter Characteristics Data: Can help planners determine housing and community facility needs.

The Measurement Evaluation states that errors in census data occur in developing and developed countries due to: Failure to count all people; failure of respondents to provide correct information; and human error when census data are compiled and entered into computers. Measurement Evaluation suggests ways to check the quality of census information:

  • Population growth or decline may be due to changes in census boundary maps, and not changes in population. Close evaluation of changes in census boundary maps is necessary when analyzing population growth or decline between census periods.
  • Compare the results to prior census results with old population projections for the area. Determine why change has occurred.
  • Building on suggestion 2, develop population pyramids for the prior and current census. Look for changes between age groups. For example, children aged 10-14 in 2000 were age 0-4 in 1990. If change exists in doing this comparison, try to determine why. As an added check, examine the results for ages 0-14 with school enrollments to see if increases or decreases have taken place.
  • Examine the procedures for data collection. Were the homeless counted accurately?
  • Speak to others in agencies and organizations involved with collecting population and related information. Are their collective results supportive of the census report?

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county.  Contact your local land use educator for more information.

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