One step closer: Co-op identification question in 2017 Economic Census enters ‘cognitive testing’ phase

[Cynthia Hollingsworth, center, Assistant Division Chief for Cross Sector Statistics at the Economy-Wide Statistics Division of the U.S. Census Bureau, updates members of the Interagency Working Group on Cooperative Development at the U.S. Department of Commerce on October 4, 2016.][Cynthia Hollingsworth, center, Assistant Division Chief for Cross Sector Statistics at the Economy-Wide Statistics Division of the U.S. Census Bureau, updates members of the Interagency Working Group on Cooperative Development at the U.S. Department of Commerce on October 4, 2016.][Cynthia Hollingsworth, center, Assistant Division Chief for Cross Sector Statistics at the Economy-Wide Statistics Division of the U.S. Census Bureau, updates members of the Interagency Working Group on Cooperative Development at the U.S. Department of Commerce on October 4, 2016.] An effort to identify cooperative businesses in the 2017 Economic Census—a move that would end a nearly 20 year-long absence of federally-reported data on co-ops in the U.S.—has entered the cognitive testing phase.

This step forward toward a more timely and relevant picture of the cooperative economy comes just months after the U.S. Department of Commerce committed to “researching the feasibility” of a request made on behalf of NCBA CLUSA by the Congressional Cooperative Business Caucus in May—to reinstate a question recognizing cooperative businesses that was dropped from the census in the 90s.

“Co-ops are currently ‘dark matter’ in the federal statistical system,” said Brent Hueth, director of Agriculture and Applied Economics at the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives. “They’re there, but we can’t identify them, so adding this question back into the census would be tremendous in terms of being able to tell the full story of cooperatives from a trusted source.”

Hueth’s comments came during the 4th meeting of the USDA Interagency Working Group on Cooperative Development, hosted by the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) at the Department of Commerce this week. In 2007, Hueth and a group from the UW Center for Cooperatives conducted their own research on the economic impact of cooperatives. That study found that there were 29,000 co-ops in the U.S. that account for more than $3 trillion in assets, more than $500 billion in revenue and sustain nearly two million jobs.

NCBA CLUSA now estimates that there are closer to 40,000 cooperative businesses in the U.S., but census data is needed to confirm that number. For close to a decade, Hueth, the USDA, NCBA CLUSA and other stakeholders have worked to transfer the collection and ownership of that data back to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Cynthia Hollingsworth, Assistant Division Chief for Cross Sector Statistics, who spoke on behalf of the U.S. Census Bureau at Tuesday’s meeting, said she was “encouraged” by progress made toward reinstating the question. Initial research on feasibility is complete, she said, and during October and November 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau will conduct field testing of a version of the question to determine respondents’ understanding of the question, whether it poses an “undue burden” and whether data to answer the question is “readily available.”

The question—which is expected to appear at the top of the census due to its cross-sector relevance—reads:


A cooperative is a business or organization owned by, controlled by and operated for the benefit of people using its services. Members (also known as user-owners) benefit from the use of service and product operations and/or earnings generated by the co-op. This includes purchasing co-ops, member patron organizations, member-controlled nonprofits, consumer co-ops, marketing co-ops, etc. Is this establishment a cooperative? Check Yes or No.

Assuming the question meets the above criteria, it would in early 2017 be submitted to the Office of Management and Business (OMB) for approval, Hollingsworth said. After OMB’s clearance, the public would have an opportunity to weigh in on the question. Electronic collection of data would begin in early 2018. In an effort to produce cleaner data faster and cheaper, the U.S. Census Bureau will for the first time in 2017 conduct its census electronically.

big flat coop 500 363d1big flat coop 500 363d1Big Flat Co-op helped preserve the rural town of Turner, Montana. Conducted every five years, the Economic Census provides a snapshot of the U.S. economy that informs legislation and guides policy decisions. Having concrete data about the impact of cooperatives on the economy is crucial to advance the sector, according to members of the Congressional Cooperative Business Caucus.

In a joint press release from the offices of Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), caucus co-chairs, Royce argued that, “policymakers should have a better handle on how co-ops are building a stronger economy.”

Pocan added that, “despite their prevalence in the economy and positive consumer attitudes, there is relatively little data available on co-ops. To better advocate on federal policy issues unique to the cooperative community, it is vital that we have ample data on this vibrant sector of our economy.”


Pocan represents Wisconsin’s Dane County, home to 80 cooperatives—the highest number of co-ops per capita of any county in the country. Syd Terry, Senior Legislative Assistant for Pocan, represented the congressman’s office at this week’s Interagency Working Group on Cooperative Development.

“We want to make sure that all congress members realize that co-ops are a direct way to engage with and help meet the needs of their constituents,” Terry said.

And indeed, co-ops are transforming communities large and small across America. At Tuesday’s meeting, representatives from federal agencies heard a story about a co-op grocery that eliminated a food desert in Turner, Montana, a town of 61 people 190 miles northeast of Great Falls. Before Big Flat Co-op opened in 2013, the closest grocery store—accessible only by one road—was a more than 60-mile round trip away. In the winter, snow often closed that road for weeks at a time.

Even in the best weather, “nobody wanted to drive 31 miles one way for a gallon of milk or a dozen eggs,” said Shannon Van Voast, secretary of the Big Flat Co-op Board of Directors.  

Now, 95 percent of Turner’s population shops at Big Flat Co-op. They no longer need to stockpile staples like milk and bread in their freezers. The co-op also supplies food for school lunches at the local K-12—critical to keeping education close to home for children in Turner and nearby towns.

“We are finally able to meet the needs of our people,” Van Voast said. “It works because it’s a co-op.”


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