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TitleUnderstanding data: U.S. - BEA and BOC county lists
AuthorPhillip Thorne

What are the differences between the lists of U.S. counties provided by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analytics and the U.S. Census Bureau?


How do the two sources differ? For 48 states, datasets produced by the BEA and Census Bureau contain identical lists of counties. In Hawaii and Virginia, however, their policies differ regarding independent cities contained within counties:

  • The BEA reports "combination areas" consisting of a county and one or more cities (3,113 areas nationwide).
  • The Census disaggregates county and city detail (3,221 areas). 

How does Moody's Analytics identify the divergent areas? The U.S. federal document FIPS PUB 6-4 defined 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, of the form AAnnn -- two letters identifying the state, followed by three digits for the county within.

(NIST no longer maintains standards for geographic areas, so FIPS 6-4 was retired in 2008 and replaced by ANSI INCITS 31-2009.)

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

For example:

  • BEA combination: Albemarle + Charlottesville (VA) = FIPS 51901 = Data Buffet geo 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. As of the "FIPS Modifications" spreadsheet currently posted by the BEA, there are 25 points of divergence

  • Geographic Areas Reference Manual - 3,141 areas
  • Census reporting - 3,221 (as of 2010)
  • BEA reporting - 3,113

What specific areas differ?  There is one point of divergence in the state of Hawaii, one in Wisconsin, and 25 in Virginia (two of them defunct). See the attached concordance for a full list, including the FIPS codes, Data Buffet geo codes, and place names.

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

How can I retrieve these areas? The Data Buffet "geo lists" feature lets you 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.


See also