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TitleFAQ: U.S. - County Definitions - How Do BEA and Census Differ?
AuthorMatthew Baldwin

Why is there a difference between the sets of U.S. counties enumerated by the BEA and Census Bureau?


How do the two agencies differ? In 48 states, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) and Census Bureau report county detail identically, by including cities within their respective counties. In Hawaii and Virginia, however, they differ:

  • The BEA defined codes to identify county/independent city combinations (resulting in 3,113 areas nationwide).
  • The Census disaggregates city and county detail (3,219 areas).  See also: how the Census defines areas.

How does Moody's Analytics identify the divergent areas? The U.S. federal document FIPS PUB 6-4 defines identifiers for "first-order subdivisions of each state and statistically equivalent entity," i.e., areas such as county, parish, borough, or independent city. Moody's Analytics used these identifiers to create our geo codes for counties, which take the form AAnnn -- two letters identifying the state, and three digits for the county within.

The BEA defined codes in the "9000" series to represent county/independent city combinations in Hawaii and Virginia. For consistency with other county codes, we changed these to three-digit values.

For example:

  • BEA combination: Albemarle + Charlottesville (VA) = FIPS 51901 = Data Buffet geography code VA901
  • Census: Albemarle County (VA) = FIPS 51003 = VA003
  • Census: Charlottesville City (VA) = FIPS 51540 = VA540

How many areas are there? As of the 1994 publication of the Census Bureau's Geographic Areas Reference Manual, there were 3,141 counties or statistical equivalents in the 50 states and District of Columbia, a number that sometimes changes. However, the BEA's reporting is based on only 3,113 counties, whereas Census reporting includes 3,219 areas.

What definition does Moody's Analytics use? Our county forecasts follow the BEA's definition, i.e., the smaller set of 3,113 counties.

How can I retrieve these areas? Data Buffet has a feature called "geo lists" (available through the "Tools" menu) whereby you can abbreviate entire sets of areas, retrieving multiple series with a single basket entry. The pertinent predefined lists are CT_BEA.LST and CT_CEN.LST. For example, you can retrieve forecasted employment for a single county with FETA.VA003, or all BEA counties with FETA.CT_BEA.LST. This is more targeted than using a geo wild card such as FETA.^^^^^, which (a) would retrieve unwanted matches, and (b) does not guarantee an ordering.

What specific areas differ?  There is one point of difference in the state of Hawaii and 24 in Virginia.  Note: The independent city of South Boston (VA780) was made and incorporated within Halifax County (VA083), but the geo codes VA780 and VA925 are defunct.

BEA-based code Census-based codes
Hawaii (1 difference)
HI901 HI005, HI009
Virginia (24 differences)
VA901 VA003, VA540
VA903 VA005, VA560, VA580
VA907 VA015, VA790, VA820
VA909 VA019, VA515
VA911 VA031, VA680
VA913 VA035, VA640
VA918 VA053, VA570, VA730
VA919 VA059, VA600, VA610
VA921 VA069, VA840
VA923 VA081, VA595
VA929 VA089, VA690
VA931 VA095, VA830
VA933 VA121, VA750
VA939 VA143, VA590
VA941 VA149, VA670
VA942 VA153, VA683, VA685
VA944 VA161, VA775
VA945 VA163, VA530, VA678
VA947 VA165, VA660
VA949 VA175, VA620
VA951 VA177, VA630
VA953 VA191, VA520
VA955 VA195, VA720
VA958 VA199, VA735
Discontinued Virginia codes
VA925 VA083, VA780