Public Values

Census decision is senseless

The issues that are no longer being probed by the government or Statistics Canada are not going away.

The issues that are no longer being probed are not going away - Armine Yalnizyan.by Armine Yalnizyan

This open letter from the Senior Economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives to Tony Clement, Ministry of Industry and Minister Responsible for Statistics Canada, and Munir Sheikh, Chief Statistician, Statistics Canada, whose resignation helped spark the nationwide furor in response to the Harper government dropping the long-form Census:

June 30, 2010

Dear Sirs,

I am concerned by the Canwest report about the decision to restrict the upcoming Census, and the path the highly-regarded Statistics Canada and the Government of Canada seems to be headed down with regard to the type of information it is interested in collecting.

This latest decision scraps the Census long-form questionnaire in favour of a one-time survey which makes responses voluntary rather than mandatory. This move will weaken the quality and availability of data that tells us what is happening to employment, immigration, housing, incomes and education – the very issues that beg for the best policy decisions possible as we inch our way through recovery.

The Census long-form questionnaire is a unique tool that affords decision-makers a rich set of facts about Canadians, facts that are as reliable at the census tract or neighbourhood level as the nation-wide level. This is because of its huge sample size and the fact that response is mandatory. The information that the Census long-form generates is invaluable for decision-makers at every level of governance. We are unlikely to get a similarly high quality of information across geographies and sub-groups of the population from the proposed survey. Though current plans envisage circulating the new survey to one in three households, the response rate will be significantly lower because it will be a voluntary questionnaire. Response rates will be particularly depressed in areas where there are active campaigns urging non-compliance, as was the case during the 2006 Census.

Without robust Census data, it is difficult for local governments, health districts and other community service providers to respond effectively to shifting patterns of need or introduce changes – including cuts – that do the least harm or provide the greatest value for money. Indeed, it is the local level that is most hampered by this federal decision. The issue raised by cutting the Census long-form questionnaire is not just about having good information; it's about having relevant tools for democracy.

This is not the first Statistics Canada survey to be cut or compromised during the administration of the current government in areas of inquiry that help develop or assess the impact of public policy.

For example, the Workplace and Employee Survey was discontinued in 2009, in the middle of the recession. It was the only source of annual information on job vacancies, benefits and private pensions. This mandatory survey asked employers questions about the availability of health-related benefits, pay-related benefits and pension-related benefits to their full- and part-time employees. The only regular source of information on private pensions was eliminated just as a flurry of concern about the sustainability of retirement incomes started to escalate.

The annual Survey of Household Spending was designed to inform us of spending patterns of Canadian households. It is about to change its methodology to save costs. Because of these changes we will no longer know what is happening to the savings rates and debt levels of rich, poor and middle class families. We will no longer know how much of their incomes rich households spend on – for example – medical expenses or energy costs compared to poorer households. The new methodology provides solid results at the most aggregated levels (what proportion of Canadian household incomes went to housing, vacations, etc.) but we are about to lose information about how Canadians spend, save, and borrow according to their age, their province of residence, and their income level. Yet this is precisely the information that is needed to monitor how Canadian households are faring in the wake of what the Bank of Canada and the national press has called the Great Recession.

Finally, the Survey of Financial Security tracks the distribution of assets and debts across income groups, age groups, family types, and regions in Canada, something virtually all advanced industrialized nations do on a regular basis. It was last undertaken by Statistics Canada in 2005. There are no plans to run it again. It has been deemed an unnecessary survey. This is a troubling development in an era in which growing inequality and concentration of incomes and wealth have become an intractable issue, in good times and bad.

These have all been political decisions. The decision to stop inquiring about the world around us is as political as the decision to ask questions. The issues that are no longer being probed by the government or Statistics Canada are not going away.

Without a foundation of reliable, consistent information, evidence-based public policy is impossible. It is troubling to think that our elected leaders think decision-based evidence-making is preferable. This may work for a time, but it is not a durable strategy.

We at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives urge to the Government of Canada to stop politicizing the work of Statistics Canada and retain utilization of the Census long-form questionnaire. We urge Statistics Canada to resume and restore surveys that are able to track trends in the distribution of incomes and wealth, savings and debt, the trends that will make or break our progress towards sustainable and broad-based recovery.

Armine Yalnizyan
Senior Economist
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

Posted: August 03, 2010

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