Census Data: So much information, so little time…

(from Maine Townsman, November 2001)
By Antoinette Mancusi, Technical Advisor, MMA

With the vast resources and data available via the Internet, knowing where to find information and how to use it are the most challenging aspects of information management.  For local officials, access to data is central to successful municipal planning.

The extensive data resources available on the U.S. Census Bureau’s web site are a fitting example of the largess of information available over the Internet.  So extensive are the Bureau’s information resources that performing even the most basic research takes tenacity and patience, not to mention quite a bit of time.

This article attempts to simplify the process of accessing census information by identifying a few key resources.  Initially, the intent of the article was to review municipal population-based statutory requirements under Maine law (see sidebar on page 18).  However, once this legal research was complete it was evident that something was missing — the practical applications for census data.

While the U.S. Census Bureau’s web site has seemingly limitless information, there is little or no guidance as to the information’s use or value.  In other words, the consumer better have an idea of how the data will be used before attempting to access it (which makes sense if you really think about it).  For those who have never had to deal with census information, not all the data’s uses are entirely self-evident.

A little history.  The census was originally undertaken so that the number of representatives from each state to the U.S. House of Representatives — based on the population — could accurately be determined.  Redistricting and redrawing Congressional districts within each state is still this data’s primary purpose.  That much was clear, but what about all the other questions . . . on homes, jobs and schooling?

According to census reports, the decennial census is the “only data-gathering effort that collects the same information from enough people to get comparable data for every geographic area in the nation.”  Census data is responsible for the yearly allocation of more than $100 billion in Federal funds disbursed to Federal, state, local, and tribal government programs.

Ways that communities can use census data.  One of the few guides available is “50 Ways to Use Census 2000” from the publication Small Community Quarterly. “50 Ways” says that the census can be used for:

• Decision-making at all levels of government.

• Assessing the potential for spread of communicable diseases.

• Reapportionment of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

• Developing assistance programs for low-income families.

• Drawing federal, state and local legislative districts.

• Analyzing military potential.

• Drawing school district boundaries.

• Creating maps to speed emergency services to households in need of assistance.

• Budget planning for government at all levels.

• Making business decisions.

• The distribution of over $100 billion in federal funds and even more in state funds.

• Delivering goods and services to local markets.

• Spotting trends in the economic well-being of nation.

• Understanding consumer needs.

• Forecasting future transportation needs for all segments of the population.

• Designing facilities for people with disabilities, the elderly or children.

• Planning for public transportation services.

• Planning for congregations.

• Planning for hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and the location of other health services.

• Product planning.

• Planning health and educational services for people with disabilities.

• Locating factory sites and distribution centers.

• Forecasting future housing needs for all segments of the population.

• Investment planning and evaluation of financial risk.

• Establishing fair market rents and enforcing fair lending practices.

• Setting community goals.

• Directing funds for services for people in poverty.

• Publication of economic and statistical reports about the United States and its people.

• Directing services to children and adults with limited English language proficiency.

• Standard for creating both public- and private-sector surveys.

• Designing public safety strategies.

• Scientific research.

• Urban planning.

• Comparing progress between different geographic areas.

• Rural development.

• Developing “intelligent” maps for government and business.

• Land use planning.

• Genealogical research (after 2072).

• Analyzing local trends.

• Proof of age, relationship or residence (certificates provided by the Census Bureau).

• Understanding labor supply.

• School projects.

• Estimating the numbers of people displaced by natural disasters.

• Medical research.

• Developing adult education programs.

• Evidence in litigation involving land use, voting rights and equal opportunity.

• Media planning and research, back up for news stories.

• Determining areas eligible for housing assistance and rehabilitation loans.

• Historical research.

• Attracting new businesses to state and local areas.

For individuals looking for a more in-depth analysis of census data, the publication, Uses for Questions on the Census 2000 Forms — Federal Legislative and Program Uses, issued March 1998 by the U.S. Census Bureau, would be helpful.  This report breaks down the census into subjects and describes some of the ways federal programs use census data.  According to the report, “the data needs were classified according to a narrow legalistic typology.”  Subjects for which there were federal laws that explicitly stated that decennial census data were needed were classified as M for mandatory.  Those for which there were federal laws that explicitly require data (although not specifically decennial census data), and decennial census data are the only or historical source, were classified as R for required.  A subject also was classified as required if case law requirements for data on this subject had been imposed by the U.S. Federal Court System.  Items which are used for federal program planning, implementation, evaluation, or to provide legal evidence, whose underlying laws do not explicitly require the use of data, were classified as P for programmatic.

From an initial review of this report’s contents, it is very comprehensive and yet organized in a manner that makes it quite condensed.  The report provides the federal legal authority for each question on the census.

Yes, there are actually statutory or legal requirements for each question asked on the census!  For example, the census age question, What is this person’s age and what is this person’s date of birth?,  according to the Census Bureau, is asked for the following reasons: 

1) Federal Uses:

• Provides data on voting age population required for legislative redistricting.

• Used to identify school districts with school-age children in poverty.

• Needed by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs to develop state projections on the need for hospitals, nursing homes, cemeteries, and other benefits for veterans.

• Used in federal programs to target funds or services to children, working-age adults, or the elderly.

2) Community Impact:

• Used to allot funds to counties and school districts to improve the education of economically disadvantaged children.

• Used to identify locations needing new schools as well as the required grade levels (elementary, middle, or high school).

• Needed by planners to determine the number of highways, hospitals, health services, and retirement homes.

• Used to enforce equal employment opportunities under the Age discrimination and Employment Act.

• Used to forecast the number of people eligible for Social Security and Medicare benefits.

The report goes on to describe “why” the question is asked in the format chosen.  Each question on the census is analyzed in the same comprehensive manner.  Therefore, census data users might want to review the reasons behind census questions to make the best use of the census data.

Easiest way to start accessing census data.  Accessing census data quickly leads one to the Maine Census Data Center Program (part of the Maine State Planning Office) and specifically to the desk of Eric VonMagnus, the Center’s information officer.

VonMagnus agrees that the Census Bureau’s web site and Internet resources, although bountiful, are not the easiest to use.  He encourages municipal officials to contact his office (287-2989) for guidance through the census data maze. Additionally, the Maine Census Data Center Program participants — a network of organizations (libraries, planning organizations, university departments, and agencies of state government) — make U.S. Census data products available to the Maine citizens while also responding to information requests.  VonMagnus says that in addition to census data, other sources exist that provide much more detailed information.

There are also fee-based services from the Center.  Generally, if a person’s request requires less than five minutes to complete, the Center does not charge a fee.  However, the fee for information requests taking more time, for example extracting block populations for a large metropolitan area, are approximately $20.  The Center also provides consultation services at $100 per hour for more in-depth research.  Fees are assessed on a case-by-case basis, so municipal officials requiring services should always request specific price quotes from the Center.

Once a municipality has its population data, is there anything it is required to do under Maine statute?  There are several population-based requirements placed on municipalities.  Whether individual municipalities will have to do anything will depend on the degree to which their population changes.  Because there are so many statutory requirements, for brevity’s sake the statutes which deal with population-based requirements are listed in the accompanying sidebar.  Municipal officials can access MMA’s web site (www.memun.org) to obtain the more in-depth version of this chart.  They can also contact the Legal Services Department with any follow-up questions that might arise.

Helpful Resources & Internet Links:

• Eric VonMagnus, Census Information Officer, State Planning Office, 287-2989; eric.vonmagnus@maine.gov

• U.S. Census Bureau: “Uses for Questions on the Census 2000 Forms — Federal Legislative and Program Uses”


• U.S. Census Bureau:  American Factfinder http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/BasicFactsServlet

(One of the newer services from the Census Bureau, aimed at non-professionals interested in basic community demographics. Provides quick access to summarized data and maps derived from the 2000 and 1990 Decennial Censuses, American Community Survey Summary, and the 1997 Economic Census)

• Government Information Sharing Project (Oregon State University)


(One of the more user-friendly Web front ends to census data.  OSU provides its own intuitive interface to a vast array of demographic data, with documentation, as downloaded from CD-ROM sources. One of several public access points to Government Information.)

>• Statistical Resources on the Web (University of Michigan) www.lib.umich.edu/govdocs/stats.html

>(Excellent all-around source of government statistics from the University of Michigan’s wonderful Documents Center. See especially their collection of links on Demographics & Housing and Sociology (Children, Crime, Elderly, Immigration, etc.))



Maine Statutes Pertaining to Municipal Population



Population Group(s)




14 MRSA § 6661

Action by Abutters of Discontinued Road or Way.

Greater than 5,000

21-A MRSA § 122 (6)

Names to be placed on voting list.

— Fewer than 2,500
— Greater than 2,500 

21-A MRSA § 125

Voter registration – Notice of schedule.

All (exceptions for municipalities of less than 2,500)

21-A MRSA § 626

Polling times at any election.

All (exceptions for municipalities of less than 4,000 and less than 100)

22 MRSA § 4305

General Assistance – Temporary maximum levels.

Greater than 10,000

23 MRSA § 754

Town maintenance in compact areas. 

— Greater than 7,500
— Between 2,499 & 7,500

23 MRSA § 1001

Maintenance and snow removal on state highways.

All but “urban compact” areas – those greater than 7,500 & > or bet. 2,499 & 7,500

29-A MRSA § 2075
*amended 2001

Municipalities – speed limits

Greater than 2,500

30-A MRSA § 2323

Regional Cooperation – Regional Councils – RPCS. 

— Greater than 10,000
— Less than 10,000

30-A MRSA § 2502

Campaign reports in municipal elections. 

— Greater than 15,000
— Less than 15,000

30-A MRSA § 2503

Reapportionment.  Failure to enact ordinance.


30-A MRSA § 2526

Choice and qualifications of town officials.

— Greater than 4,000
— Less than 4,000

30-A MRSA § 2528

Secret ballot.

All (1-200; 201-500 & greater than 500)

30-A MRSA § 5404

Issuance of Revenue Bonds.

Greater than 1,000

30-A MRSA § 5823

Annual Post-Audit.

— Greater than 10,000
— Less than 10,000

35-A MRSA § 2517

Revocation of pole location; hearings.

Greater than 40,000

36 MRSA § 383
*amended 2001

Municipal Valuation Return – failure to file penalty.

— Greater than 2,000
— less than 2000

38 MRSA § 1724

Maine Refuse Disposal District Enabling Act - Directors.


38 MRSA §2133

Recycling progress reports.



 *some laws establish different requirements for different population groups