Reviving the census debate

I would expect any change of government to result in a restoration of the long-form census given the widespread support across different groups.

However, the extent that this change could be made in time for 2016 is unclear (expect that this issue will figure in any transition briefings by Industry Canada/StatsCan).

In Multiculturalism in Canada: Evidence and Anecdote, I was advised by a number of experts not to compare 2011 NHS data with 2006 data given the issues flagged below:

Canadian researchers Daniel Wilson and David Macdonald say they are facing enormous stumbling blocks due to the federal government’s elimination of the mandatory long-form census in 2010.

The pair, doing work for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), a non-partisan research body that focuses on social, economic and environmental issues, is struggling to reconcile trends they’re now seeing in child poverty rates among native children.

The problem: they’re comparing data between the 2006 mandatory long-form census and the new — optional — long-form National Household Survey (NHS) that the federal government introduced in 2011.

Because the data from 2006 and 2011 came from two different processes, the researchers say they can’t tell if the latest trends they’re seeing are real or due to the fact so many fewer people filled in the optional long form in 2011.

“The practical challenge with working with the NHS is doubt — doubt that what you’ve found isn’t what’s actually happening in the world, but rather is a statistical artifact,” says Macdonald, who is also an economist.

Researchers, public policy advocates, statisticians, business groups, economists — and the Liberal and NDP parties — continue to call for the mandatory long-form questionnaire to be brought back, arguing that important statistical data is getting lost.

In a package of recently proposed reforms on transparency, the Liberals are promising to immediately restore the mandatory long form if they form government in the Oct. 19 federal election.

And Jean Ong, a spokesperson for the NDP, said in a statement that the party has long advocated for the restoration of the long-form census and continues to do so.

The lost data has massive implications for public policy decisions, business planning and a host of other areas, proponents of the mandatory long survey say.

Yet so far, the census hasn’t been in the spotlight on the campaign trail. But could it become an election issue?

Paul Jacobson, a Toronto economics consultant who relies heavily on census data for his work, believes it should. He says business planning is being seriously harmed by the new census data collection system.

“All the money in the world given to business surveyors could not replace the (mandatory) long form, period. You need a mandatory survey to get the quality of data you need to make good comparisons in small areas. That’s how you do business planning,” Jacobson says.

Stephen Toope, president of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, a national public policy advocate for Canada’s scholars, students and practitioners in the humanities and social sciences, says the “essence of the concern” about not having the mandatory long-form census is the impact on public policy.

“Thinking about questions around immigration, social service, children’s health and what kind of investments need to be made and where they need to be made — if we don’t know who is where, it’s very difficult to make informed policy decisions,” Toope says.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

One Response to Reviving the census debate

  1. Marion Vermeersch says:

    I’m not an administrator, but I’m sure that extensive harm has been caused through the loss of the long-form census, as there would be no way to effectively plan services by charities, businesses and government services. But then, perhaps that was the reason for cancelling it in the first place. Restoration of the census might take some time to provide an accurate portrayal of trends and identification of needs I would think the sooner this happens, the better as it will only cost more to restore correct funding and catch up.

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