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Introduction to the Economic Census

Monday, July 13, 2015


The economic census is the major source of facts about the structure and functioning of the nation’s economy. It provides essential information for government, business, industry, and the general public. Title 13 of the U.S. Code (Sections 131, 191, and 224) directs the U.S. Census Bureau to take the economic census every 5 years, ending in “2” and “7.”

The economic census furnishes an important part of the framework for such composite measures as the gross domestic product estimates, input/output measures, production and price indexes, and other statistical series that measure short-term changes in economic conditions. Specific uses of economic census data include the following:

  • Policymaking agencies of the federal government use the data to monitor economic activity and assess the effectiveness of policies.
  • State and local governments use the data to assess business activities and tax bases within their jurisdictions and to develop programs to attract business.
  • Trade associations study trends in their own and competing industries, which allows them to keep their members informed of market changes.
  • Individual businesses use the data to locate potential markets and to analyze their own production and sales performance relative to industry or area averages.


The economic census is conducted on an establishment basis. A company operating at more than one location is required to file a separate report for each store, factory, ship, or other location. Each establishment is assigned a separate industry classification based on its primary activity and not that of its parent company.


All results of the 2012 Economic Census are available on the American FactFinder Internet site The American FactFinder system at the Web site allows selective retrieval and downloading of the data. For more information, including a description of reports being issued, see the Web site; write to the U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC 20233-8300; or call the Customer Services center at 1-800-923-8282 or 301-763-4636.


The economic census has been taken as an integrated program at 5-year intervals since 1967 and before that for 1954, 1958, and 1963. Prior to that time, individual components of the economic census were taken separately at varying intervals.

The economic census traces its beginnings to the 1810 Decennial Census, when questions on manufacturing were included with those for population. Coverage of economic activities was expanded for the 1840 Decennial Census and subsequent censuses to include mining and some commercial activities. The 1905 Census of Manufactures was the first time a census was taken apart from the regular decennial population census. Censuses covering retail and wholesale trade and construction industries were added in 1930, as were some service trades in 1933.

Censuses of construction, manufacturing, and the other business service censuses were suspended during World War II.

The 1954 Economic Census was the first census to be fully integrated, providing comparable census data across economic sectors and using consistent time periods, concepts, definitions, classifications, and reporting units. It was the first census to be taken by mail, using lists of firms provided by the administrative records of other federal agencies. Since 1963, administrative records have also been used to provide basic statistics for very small firms, reducing or eliminating the need to send them census report forms.

The range of industries covered in the economic censuses expanded between 1967 and 2007. The census of construction industries began on a regular basis in 1967; and the scope of service industries, introduced in 1933, was broadened in 1967, 1977, and 1987. While a few transportation industries were covered as early as 1963, it was not until 1992 that the census broadened to include all of transportation, communications, and utilities. Also, new for 1992 was coverage of financial, insurance, and real estate industries. With these additions, the economic census and the separate census of governments and census of agriculture collectively covered roughly 98 percent of all economic activity. In 2002, there was new coverage in the following four industries classified in the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing sector under the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) system: landscape agricultural services, landscaping services, veterinary services, and pet care services.

Printed statistical reports from the 1997 and earlier economic censuses provide historical figures for the study of long-term time series and are available in some large libraries. CD-ROMs issued from the 1987, 1992, and 1997 Economic Censuses contain databases including all or nearly all data published in print, plus additional statistics, such as Zip Code statistics, published only on CD-ROM.


More information about scope, coverage, and classification system for each economic census and related surveys is published in the “What’s New” section of the 2012 Economic Census Web site at Data items and publications for each economic census and related surveys are published as part of the 2012 Economic Census on American FactFinder at More information on the methodology, procedures, and history of each economic census is published in the “Methodology” section of the 2012 Economic Census Web site at