How Many Retired People Live in California?

It sounds like a very simple and straightforward question: “How many retired people live in the State of California (or the Bay Area, or County X or City Y).” If I was asked this, I’d probably guess the person is after “most recent and reliable” data. Knowing what I know (not knowing what I don’t know, of course), I’d turn to the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) data for 2015.

I’d start with American Factfinder (AFF) (, select the “2015 ACS 1-year estimates”, then select the geographies I’m interested in (United States, California, etc.) and then use the search box to find “retire” or “retirement.”

The results of my search would turn up Table B19059: “Retirement Income in the Past 12 Months for Households” Great! Now, I know that there were 36 million households with retirement income in the United States, out of 118 million total households. In California, 2,079,759 out of 12,896,357 households had retirement income in 2015. Case closed.

But there are a couple of “gotchas” from this quick analysis: the answer from the AFF search are in “households” and not “persons.” And the bigger secret is that “retirement income” does not include social security pensions (as far as I can tell!!!)

When analyzing data from the decennial census or the American Community Survey (or most any database) the first rule (I would recommend) is to understand the questions that were asked of respondents, in other words: read the questionnaire!

The “household income” on the ACS is actually  “personal income” collected in eight categories, in Question #47 a-h of the 2015 ACS:

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 10.47.51 AM

So, “social security or railroad retirement” income includes social security pensions and survivor benefits, permanent disability insurance payments and railroad retirement insurance checks. The ACS Question #47g includes retirement pensions and survivor benefits from a former employer; labor union; or federal, state or local government; and the US military. #47g does not include social security income.

(The analyst should not only know the questionnaire, and instructions to respondents, but they should also familiarize themselves with the “2015 Subject Definitions” product available from the ACS web site!!!)

Revising my American Factfinder search to dig deeper I find Tables B19051 through B19060, that almost perfectly align with Question #47 a-h. (One of the tables combines results from Question #15 on food stamps/SNAP with Question #47f on public assistance income).

So, from Table B01905 I find that there are 36 million households out of 118 million total households in the United States with “social security” income. In California, there are 3,535,833 households out of 12,896,357 total households with social security income. (Should I simply add the number of households with social security income with the number of households with retirement income? Probably not, as I expect quite a bit of overlap! The plot thickens!)

So, in conclusion, I made a direct attempt at getting “number of retired people” from the American Community Survey, but came up short. That’s okay, because there are other ways of approaching this question.

But this post is getting too long, and I need to get outside and enjoy the sunshine!

To be continued!




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