How Census Bureau Economic Programs Provide Coherent Data Series


James Burton, William Davie, and Scott Scheleur, US Census Bureau

The Census Bureau’s mission is to serve as the nation’s leading provider of quality data about its people, places, and economy.  This article gives a brief introduction to the Census Bureau’s economic surveys and how they work together to help measure the health of the U.S. economy.

A survey’s purpose typically dictates the frequency with which it is conducted as well as the number of businesses included and the amount of information requested.  While there are many types of economic surveys, three primary types are: (1) Economic Census; (2) Annual Programs; (3) Indicator Programs.  The following is graphical representation of the programs we explore in this article.

The Economic Census, conducted every five years, for years ending in “2” and “7”, is the largest, most comprehensive survey covering employer businesses.  It requests the most information from the largest number of businesses and provides counts of the number of firms and establishments as well as totals of employment, payroll, sales, and other key data items at very granular industrial and geographic levels.  The Census Bureau, other government agencies, and other data producers use the published results to benchmark estimates produced from other statistical programs.  Additionally, the information collected is used to update the Census Bureau’s master database of businesses, the Business Register, which serves as the source of sampling frames for other Census Bureau surveys and to produce the annual County Business Patterns and Nonemployer Statistics data products.  The Census Bureau also uses the Economic Census to introduce updated industry classification as defined by the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS).


Annual Programs bridge the data gap between Economic Censuses and provide measures of level and year-to-year changes for key data items such as payroll, sales, inventories and e-commerce sales at detailed industry, and depending on program, state by detailed industry levels.  In addition, the annual programs measure a variety of industry-specific items of special interest to the data community including detailed revenue breakouts, purchases, sales tax, total and detailed expenses, and total and detailed capital expenditures.  To ensure continuity and coherence in time series, the Annual Programs do two key operations.  First, when new samples are introduced, we mathematically link estimates between the samples to ensure continuity between estimates from the independent samples.  Second, we directly set key estimates, such as sales or inventories, to the same level as published by the Economic Census.  This ensures consistency across estimates provided by the annual and census programs and allows us to decrease the bias of our annual estimates by using the more reliable census estimates as a benchmark.  For other data items, we adjust to the new key item levels, as appropriate, with processes that attempt to minimize the effect on the individual item year to year changes.


The Indicator Programs are part of a larger set of government statistics designated by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as Principal Federal Economic Indicators (PFEI).  PFEIs provide the most timely measures of the economy on typically a monthly or quarterly cadence.  The Census Bureau produces thirteen of these indicators covering topics such as retail trade, international trade, manufacturing, and construction.  Indicators are generally smaller in scope than their annual counterparts or the Economic Census and are focused on measuring short-term trends of key data items at the national level.  In most sectors, however, overlaps in coverage with their annual and Economic Census counterparts allow the indicators to directly link to those less frequent collections by “benchmarking” the results. This benchmarking operation leverages the additional accuracy obtained by the annual and census programs to align data items and produce a consistent time series for our data users.


The Economic Census, Annual Programs, and Indicator Programs all serve specific measurement purposes.  Together, they provide data users with a comprehensive picture of the U.S. economy. For more information on these programs, please visit our website at