Category Archives: Demographics

Fat and poor: What’s not to love about the East Coast?

Evidence of Atlantic Canadian exceptionalism mounts with each day that passes. Judging from the headlines, our position within Confederation has never been more secure, our role never more crucial.

Do we serve the rest of Canada as both the butt of their jokes and the source of their ire? Of course we do, and with brio, mister.

Merely consider the following from the Globe and Mail, Canada’s self-assured, self-identifying “national” newspaper, the other day:

“The number of obese Canadians has tripled since the mid-1980s, a phenomenon driven by a sharp rise in the number of extremely overweight adults whose health complications are expected to place a heavy burden on the health-care system.”

And where, pray tell, will we find the highest rate of corpulence in Canada?

“(The) burden is not spread evenly, with the highest proportion of obese adults in the Atlantic provinces and the lowest in wealthy and healthy British Columbia, according to a new study that predicts the country’s weight problem is only going to get worse, especially in the fattest provinces.”

What’s worse, the piece goes on to say, “the study warns that, if the trend continues, more than one in five Canadians will be obese by 2019. In five provinces – Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Manitoba – there will be more adults who are overweight and obese than adults who tip the scales at a healthy weight that same year.”

Oddly, there’s no explanation for why Prince Edward Island, alone among East Coast provinces, is missing from the list. It’s conceivable that with a smaller population than Metro Moncton’s, the Island failed to impress itself as a province upon the study’s authors, one of whom is, herself, a resident of Atlantic Canada.

“We have a growing number of these people (overweight and obese) and we haven’t really sorted out the treatment. ” Laurie Twells, a prof in the faculty of medicine at Memorial University in St. John’s. “We’re not actually curing it (obesity). We haven’t managed to help people lose weight and keep it off, other than through something like bariatric surgery.”

Now, as other research links obesity with straightened socio-economic circumstances, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Atlantic Canada is not only home to the nation’s highest proportion of fat people; it’s also home to the highest proportion of poor ones.

According to Statistics Canada’s The Daily a year ago, “the income gap between the top one per cent and the rest of filers has widened over time. In 1982, the median income of the top one per cent of filers was $191,600. This was seven times higher than the median income of $28,000 for the other 99 per cent of filers. By 2010, the median income of the top one per cent of filers increased to $283,400, about 10 times higher than the median income of $28,400 for the rest. The income of top filers was increasingly dependent on their jobs, rather than on investments.”

Meanwhile, “in 2010, four provinces – Ontario, Alberta, Quebec and British Columbia – accounted for 92 per cent of the 254,700 people in the top 1 per cent.

Ontario had 110,300, followed by Alberta with 52,200, Quebec at 42,600 and British Columbia with 29,500. Between 1990 and 2010, Alberta’s share of the top 1 per cent of filers doubled from 10 per cent to 20 per cent, while Ontario’s proportion fell from 51 per cent to 43 per cent.”

The only reason why no Atlantic province gets a mention is that the incidence of conspicuous wealth in the region is so rare, it’s statistically insignificant.

On the other hand, reported the Globe last year, “new data shows the share of individual income that comes from government transfers is highest in the Atlantic provinces. Three of those provinces. . .receive slightly more transfers than the total taxes they pay. The main factors appear to be higher unemployment in Atlantic Canada – but also an older population.”

Uh, no kidding Sherlock.

To be sure, though, we along the seabound East Coast might yet salvage some dignity. A new Scotiabank poll finds that Atlantic Canadian small business owners are more inclined than their counterparts elsewhere in the country to work until they drop.

That, too, makes us special among our countrymen.

Still, who’s complaining? As long as it keeps our minds off the junk food.

Tagged , ,

Wooing the middle-class voter

cropped-capespear2.jpg

With all the strength and stridency his office demanded of him, the second coming of Pierre Elliot Trudeau – specifically, his eldest son Justin, a la the “just society” of three decades ago – importuned the assembled Liberal faithful at the Party’s conference this past weekend to embrace and fully engage the Canadian middle class. 

And that immediately raised a question: Which middle class?

Just as the charismatic Grit leader bemoaned the fact that “middle-class Canadians struggle to balance their cheque books” a formerly confidential government report (made public through an Access to Information request by Canadian Press) resonantly declared that “the Canadian dream is a myth more than a reality.”

In fact, its conclusions “point to a middle class that isn’t growing in the marketplace, is increasingly indebted though it has a relatively modest standard of living, and is less likely to move to higher income (i.e., the middle class is no springboard to higher incomes).”

Other findings include:

“Over 1993-2007, there has been a slight hollowing out of the middle class, and the face of the middle class has changed considerably. Couples without young children and unattached individuals now account for most middle-class families.”

Meanwhile, “although middle-income families experienced a good progression in after-tax income, the same cannot be said of their earnings. In particular, the wages of middle-income workers have stagnate.”

Then, there’s that whole golden-goose phenomenon in which, it seems, the more money you manage to earn today, the more likely you will continue to comfortably line your pockets in the future.

“Although the middle class holds a relatively fair share of the ‘wealth pie’, higher-income families have far greater nest eggs,” the report observes. “Furthermore, wealth is not equally divided among middle-income families, with those headed by younger individuals being at a disadvantage.”

Finally, middle earners in this country are spendthrifts who burn through more than they bring in, “mortgaging their futures” with cheap and easy credit “to sustain their current consumption.”

Under the circumstances, it only make senses that all three major federal parties are obsessed with the middle class; with its welfare, its return to strength, its re-invigoration. After all, the storied bourgeoisie made this country what it is today?

Well, didn’t it?

“My priority is the Canadians who built this country: the middle class, not the political class,” thunders Mr. Trudeau in one recent ad.

Adds his nemesis, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, “Today, our country faces levels of income inequality not seen since the Great Depression, and the middle class is struggling like never before. Middle-class wages are consistently on the decline. Yet the Conservative solution is to demand even more from you and to leave even less to our children and our grandchildren.”

Poppy-cock, the Tories rejoin. They remain singularly fixated on the condition of Canadian “families” to which they say they are committed with their “low-tax plan and measures to help sustain a higher quality of life for hard-working Canadians.”

Of course, the problem with all of this is that, these days, just about everyone calls himself a member of the middle class. So, targeting the message, at least politically, is getting trickier.

One member of your audience may draw a salary of $40,000 a year and another, $80,000. Technically, they both qualify for membership in the middle class (a membership that, increasingly, promises few privileges).

But their experiences and circumstances – their very diversity thanks to decades of neo-liberal and neo-conservative attacks on government protections, prudent market regulation and labour unions – have rendered them utterly unalike.

While one toils at a boutique design studio that offers full-time hours and pretty good benefits, the other owns a craft shop and pays through the nose for private health insurance. The former is a wobbly centre-right Conservative; the latter is a raging lefty with a bone to pick.

To whom do Messrs. Trudeau, Mulcair and Harper address themselves when they go stumping about the country squawking about the  struggling wage earner of moderate means?

The middle class is no longer the monolithically predictable, ideologically stable voting block it once was. Those in office who entertain hopes of remaining their would do well to remember that.

Tagged , , , ,

Can we go ‘up the road’ for a change?

They queued in long, broken lines, some still bleary from the shanks of many recent  evenings of farewells. Some stood, laden down with boxes and suitcases; others carried their entire lives in their wallets and satchels. Each waited patiently for his individual moment of truth to arrive.

At five o’clock on an iron-cold January morning, it was hard to believe that the most vibrant place – where the cultural, social and economic roads converged – in New Brunswick’s Hub City had become the boarding lounge of the Greater Moncton International Airport.

Here the infamous provincial diaspora was well underway: hundreds of young, middle-aged and elderly people voting on their respective futures with their feet.

Sure, some declared that they would one day return from Alberta’s dirty brown fields of opportunity. But just as many or more insisted that they were leaving for good.

“There just isn’t any point in staying,” one traveller told me. “The jobs aren’t here, and most of my family is out west, now, anyway.”

Added another: “I don’t get a sense of any direction or vision in New Brunswick. I mean, what’s the overall plan for the economy?”

Still another captured the zeitgeist of the moment perfectly: “I’m just tired.”

That’s it, isn’t it? We’ve all grown bone weary: utterly, achingly tired.

We’re tired of politicians making promises they can’t possibly keep. We’re tired of tabulating the province’s $538-million annual deficit and $11-billion longterm debt. We’re tired of public sector cutbacks that either go too far or don’t go far enough and, in any case, don’t seem to make a lick of difference.

It is so much easier to heed the siren’s call, beckoning us to leave, to move and never to return.

Why, out in Fort McMurray, if one played his cards right, one could become a project engineer or a maintenance coordinator or an electrical engineer or a mine maintenance manager.

Why, out in Fort Mac, where the tundra mice play, one could earn $100,000 a year driving a truck.

What’s keeping us here? Tradition? Roots? Family ties?

Sentimental nonsense! Off we go and (not looking back), good riddance!

In fact, we have a point, though it’s not an especially novel one.

Outmigration has been one of New Brunswick’s (indeed, all of Atlantic Canada’s) signature demographic features for 150 years. Wave upon wave of Maritimers and Newfoundlanders have left their homes in the East to build new ones in new communities in the West. This transfer of knowledge, skills and capital is what built Canada’s great industries, institutions and infrastructure, from the CNR to the drilling derricks of the oil sands.

What’s unique about the current exodus, however, is that, nowadays, few western-bound sojourners seem particularly interested in the fundamental reasons for our regional ennui. Fewer still are willing to risk their livelihoods and living standards by staying put and lending a hand in what surely must become The Great and Awesome Fix of New Brunswick, circa 2014.

For, without exaggeration, this is what’s required: a thorough overhaul not only of the way we spend public dollars and account for public programs, but of the way we govern ourselves and even of the expectations we create and maintain for ourselves and our neighbours.

In this, our finest resource may well be the self-reliance for which we have, until recently, been known. From this has stemmed the optimism, energy, derring-do and entrepreneurial courage and savviness that is always necessary to people who want to get important things done.

Important things like a downtown multi-purpose events centre for this city, a facility that Toronto developer and Moncton native Vaughn MacLellan hopes to complement with his own in the near future.

“We believe that the property is ideal for high density, multi-use office, retail and multi-residential development,” he told the Moncton Times & Transcript the other day. “At the end of the day, we want to try to create a lively, energetic area where people live, work and play.”

And not, dare we hope, find ourselves too tired to grab our future by the scruff and give it a good shake.

Tagged , , ,

There’s still life in the old folks home

 

Leaves of grass for NB's labour market

The day passed like any other at this time of the year: under a darkening gloom that  heralds the inevitable arrival of the great, white death that is the Maritime winter.

If genies were real, and I employed one, I would move my birthday (yesterday), to a more cheerful month, such as May, which Milton observed lyrically “doth inspire mirth, and youth, and warm desire.”

There’s nothing especially youthful, mirthful or warm about November. And as the days get shorter, it so happens so do the years in this corner of the country.

A piece in the Telegraph-Journal yesterday suggests that New Brunswick is aging more rapidly than just about everywhere else in the nation. By Statistics Canada’s reckoning, 17.6 per cent of this province’s 750,000-strong population is age 65 or older. Nova Scotia’s populace is just fractionally more geriatric: 17.7 per cent of people there are upper sexagenarians.

Under the circumstances, If you came from Nova Scotia to live in New Brunswick (as I did) you now can’t help feeling as if you’ve merely switched rooms in the old folks home. “The four Atlantic provinces round out the top four spots in the country in terms of having the most seniors – all more than 17 per cent,” the T-J reports. “Alberta and the territories have the lowest percentages of seniors – all less than 12 per cent.”

Meanwhile, “New Brunswick also has the second highest median age in Canada at just under 44 years of age. Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest median age at just over 44 years.”

Such news, like the weather and the time of the year, naturally evokes situational unease, a sort of contact dermatitis of the soul. Indeed, it has become customary for political leaders from all parties to decry the demographic shift underway in New Brunswick and elsewhere in Atlantic Canada.

But fellows like Michael Haan, the Canada research chair in population and social policy at the University of New Brunswick, thinks we’re missing point. We should stop complaining – something we’ve been doing almost reflexively for years – and embrace our wizening profile. After all, what else do you do with lemons but make lemonade?

Actually, his argument is a little less flippant than that as he tells the T-J, “I think young, entrepreneurial people should see opportunity here. You have a large population of aging baby boomers who are wealthy and have time on their hands. . .These are interesting people who have lived full lives.”

Well, I know I have. In fact, despite Mr. Haan’s unfortunate use of the past tense, I still am living a full life. I belong to the largest cohort of the boom – those who turn 53 this year – and when I amble down history lane, I am frequently astonished by a half-century of change.

In 1960, the year I was born, for example, the Gross National Product of the United States was $503 billion. Today, it’s closer to $16 trillion. In that year, the median household income in America (not adjusted for inflation) was less than $6,000. Today, it’s more than $50,000.

Also in 1960, according to The People’s Chronology (published in 1979), “The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Companies (OPEC meets for the first time September 14 at Baghdad and  forces a retraction of the decrease in oil prices by Standard Oil of New Jersey. . .Some 2,000 electronic computers are delivered to U.S. business offices, universities, laboratories, and other buyers. . .The debate will rage as to whether computers wipe out jobs or create new ones. . .Aluminum cans for food and beverages are used for the first time commercially but 95 per cent of U.S. soft drinks and 50 per cent of beer is sold in returnable bottles that are used 40 to 50 times each.”

It’s easy to forget the “full lives” members of every generation lead. The passing of time, of youth, renders us sentimental codgers and coots in this dangerously sentimental month of the year.

Sure, we’re getting old. It happens to the best of us. But New Brunswick’s economy is not a nursery school with seats saved for precious toddlers.

There’s work to be done, and we’re not dead yet

Tagged , , ,

One man’s survey is another’s rubbish

herenov14

“Census changes produced costly, unreliable ‘garbage,’ researchers say” – The Globe and Mail, October 5, 2013

Greetings, and welcome to Canada’s National Household Survey.

This is  your government’s $650-million way of reaching out and saying, “howdy.”

We’ve moved to this strictly voluntary exercise because we believe that the citizens of this great country are already too busy, too hassled, in their everyday lives to want to provide the “nanny state” with information that might actually prove useful to economic and social planners, who are just a bunch of nosey parkers anyway.

But if you can afford a few minutes (and don’t feel any compunction if you can’t) why not fill out the questionnaire in our new section on post-consumption uses for common items of refuse? We call it “Garbage in, garbage out.”

Enjoy!

Question 1: When faced with an empty milk carton, do you: a) throw it in the trash; b) add it to your collection, which you keep next to your growing ball of used string; or c) turn it into a candelabra for the dinner table?

Question 2: When your child outgrows his sneakers, do you: a) give them to charity; b) craft them into hand puppets to amuse trick or treaters; or c) tie them together and hang them from a power line?

Question 3: Circle the statement that most accurately reflects how you feel about spent coffee grinds: a) they’re utterly useless; b) for reading the future, they can’t be beat; c) they’re a great addition to any household potpourri; or d) I don’t drink coffee.

Question 4: Indicate your opinion of plastic grocery bags from one of the following options: a) I have no opinion of plastic grocery bags; b) plastic grocery bags are the weapons of choice within the petrochemical-industrial complex; or c) when tied to your feet with rubber bands, plastic grocery bags make wonderful house slippers.

Question 5: Which of the following common items of refuse do you consider provides most post-consumption use: a) a dry-cleaning tag; b) a restaurant receipt; or c) a wadded-up ball of toilet paper?

Question 6: Which of the following common items of refuse to your consider provides least post-consumption use: a) a cigarette butt; b) a cocktail stir stick; or c) a wadded up ball of toilet paper.

Question 7: On a scale of one to ten – where one signifies “strong disagreement” and ten signifies “strong agreement” – rank your reaction to the following three statements displayed on the website of Big Spring Environmental, based in Huntsville, Alabama:

First: “Isn’t it amazing what you can do with paper towel or toilet paper tubes? Simply cut some spent paper towel tubes into one-inch pieces, flatten them and glue them together for a masterpiece your kids will love! Some additional suggestions for you to consider are pasting a picture in the center, hanging several of them as snowflakes or using it as a countdown for special holidays (kids would love tearing it apart piece by piece). After it’s all put together, paint them up!”

Second: “This igloo is made entirely of empty milk jugs! It would obviously take a while to collect this many, but asking friends and neighbors to save their cartons would help speed up the process. Moreover, when the time comes to tear it down, look at all of the recyclable goodness you will have accumulated! Start saving them today!”

Third: “There are many good uses for old newspapers around the house, but this one takes the cake. With the help of some balloons, paste, newspapers and lighting, you can build these light-up globes. They’re awesome. The next time you’re about to throw away tissue paper or newspaper, give this activity a try!”

Thank you for completing the “Garbage in, garbage out” section of Canada’s National Household Survey. Rest assured, none of the information you have provided in this questionnaire will be used in any way. Period.

In fact, it’s quite probable we won’t even read it, which, come to think of it, leaves you with an alternative to mailing it back to us.

Toss in the garbage where it belongs.

Sticking out our economic chin

Oh yeah, baby, we are stuck where the sun don't shine

Oh yeah, baby, we are stuck where the sun don’t shine

Of course, precisely 11 months before the next provincial election in New Brunswick, the urgent conversation would have to shift, the channel change, the page turn. After all,  there’s only so much bad news one person can digest before he succumbs to the hallucinogen of wishful thinking.

Now, the question for all to ponder is whether we are, at base, a glass-half-empty or a glass-half-full kind of folk. And in so doing, the campaign slogans of yore will no longer suffice. We will no longer respond to heady promises of prosperity any more than we will believe desperate warnings of imminent penury.

Right down the middle, between all possible extremes of human circumstance, is where we are and where we want to stay. The political party that understands the true power of self-delusion will win the day, as it brands its march to the ballot box with a few, well-chosen words: “Hey, here in New Brunswick, it could be worse.”

The province’s annual deficit is now projected to reach $499.9 million by the end of fiscal 2013, the result of lower-than-expected revenue. “That’s due mainly to weaker than anticipated results from NB Power,” Finance Minister Blaine Higgs told reporters last week. “We’ve had this information on the first quarter for a few weeks but we were intending to be able to line it up to the year-end results from last year.”

As for the three-month period ending this month, he’s no more sanguine: “We’ve seen some signs of growth in sectors like in the forestry sector, but I’m not expecting a huge uplift in revenue for the second quarter.”

Cheer up, though: .

“If we had not made that decision (to cut government spending) early on, looking at the continued economic performance and the issues of revenue, we as a province would be in very dire straits,” Premier David Alward reassured the press corps.

Unsaid, but implicit, was the proposition that a province of 756,000 souls, with an annual lien of half-a-billion bucks and a structural long-term debt approaching $12 billion, is not, technically speaking, in dire straights. Clearly, Mr. Alward’s definition of the word ‘dire’ departs somewhat from the Fraser Insititute’s, which concluded in April, “It’s hard to deny that New Brunswick’s finances are in a dire state.”

Indeed, wrote the Vancouver-based think tank, “The province has splashed red ink every year since 2008/09. . .With the provincial government persistently spending beyond its means, New Brunswick’s net debt (financial liabilities minus assets) is set to dramatically increase from a recent low of $6.7 billion in 2006/07 (25.4 per cent of GDP) to $11.6 billion in 2013/14 (34.2 per cent).”

On the other hand, that’s just the Fraser Institute: Always raining on everyone’s parade. Should we more properly worry that we continue to lose the tax base we need to get our finances shipshape and Bristol fashion?

This week, Statistics Canada reported that New Brunswick shed 947 people during the 12-month period ending July 1, 2013. Michael Haan, a population expert at the University of New Brunswick, told the Telegraph-Journal, “I would estimate we will see year-over-year declines for the next five years or so. We are at a point in history where we have a large group at the age of migration. The baby boomers’ children are between 15 and 30 now. The prime year for moving is around 28.”

Again, however, it could be worse. The year before, New Brunswick lost more than 2,000 people to better jobs and rosier opportunities in Ontario and Alberta. Besides, at least we’re not Greece or even Spain where, as Bloomberg Businessweek reported in June, “The nation’s population fell last year for the first time since records began in 1971, and the main reason was an 18 per cent increase in the number of foreign nationals leaving the country. Romanians, Moroccans, and Ecuadorians led the way out.”

Rest assured, gentle reader, all is not woe in New Brunswick.

In fact, given our stubbornly sunny disposition, it’s remarkable we’re not all on skid row.

Tagged , , ,

Facing up to the pension challenge

In the unlikely event that New Brunswickers, en masse, get busy and jump start another baby boom to someday repopulate the ranks of the provincial civil service, we might just avoid the fiscal crisis that now looms over public pensions.

The sad truth is, though, the $1 billion in unfunded liability will not vanish so appealingly. No fancies of the imagination, no wishful thinking, no sleights of the accountant’s hand will make it go away. Someone’s going to have to pay for it. The debate that roils now is solely about who.

Will it be, to some extent, those who paid faithfully into the fund for decades –  presuming that they would receive, upon their retirement, a predictable amount on which to survive their sunset years? Or will it be, to a much larger extent, those who are still working – many in the public sector; many more in the private sector where taxes must, by necessity, cover the pension shortfall.

Such is New Brunswick’s “Sophie’s Choice”.

The David Alward government has never been clearer about its stand on any matter of public policy than it has on this one. It wants to move to a shared-risk approach, modeled after some European systems, in which pensioners assume some of the hazards of their variably performing investments directly. Gone, then, would be the traditional and fixed guarantees, including yearly CPI indexing.

In a letter to the New Brunswick Pension Coalition (obtained earlier this week by the Telegraph-Journal), provincial Finance Minister Blaine Higgs said the status quo is unacceptable. So are the quick fixes contemplated to postpone the inevitable. “It would be impossible for the province to consider ‘Band-Aid‘ solutions,” he wrote. “Nor could we accept changes to the proposed model which would be unfair to our current and future employees or to New Brunswick taxpayers.”

It is around this issue of fairness than members of the Coalition also rally. Is it fair, they ask, for the provincial government to unilaterally claw back pension guarantees? Is it fair to force a retiree, with few economic options available to him, to accept a level of risk shrouding his income he was never led to expect until now? When, in essence, is breaking a deal ever fair?

Who’s right? In a way, everyone is. Still, and lamentably, for the current cohort of pensioners, there is no moral equivalency between these opposed positions. The ground on which the government stands is higher if only because most people in the province do not enjoy the arrangements at issue. Absent any reform, they would, however, have to pay for them.

DSC_0180

The disputants may blame each other until all the clauses in the Public Service Superannuation Act sunset. But the real enemy is demographics. And the cold, if somewhat comforting, fact is New Brunswick is not alone.

Just about everywhere in Canada, public pensions are in trouble. They were crafted at a time in the nation’s history when the future looked much more munificent than it does today. The pay-it-forward model – in which the existing generation of public workers essentially contributes to the retirement well being of future ones as it relies on the beneficence of past ones – is, for all practical purposes, broken.

Today, the population is increasingly geriatric and that – according to public policy experts William Robson and Alexandre Laurin, writing in the Globe and Mail this week – means “there are fewer active employees to support the pensions of retired beneficiaries. People are living longer, which means pensions need to be paid out for longer periods.”

In fact, as they discuss pension reforms underway in Alberta, they single out New Brunswick’s proposed changes as “ambitious” and “far-reaching,” suggesting that the “new shared-risk model. . .protects future generations by permitting reductions of base benefits already accrued, in extreme situations.”

For most New Brunswickers, the choice, though unhappy, is clear. In the interests of fairness, and for the sake of what’s left of the system, pension reform is necessary.

In fact, wishful thinking to the contrary, it’s unavoidable.

Tagged , ,

All the data that’s not fit to print

DSC_0153

Can the irony be any more succulent?

Mere days before Statistics Canada took the extraordinary decision to sit on the final batch of data stemming from its 2011 voluntary survey because, it said, the numbers don’t accurately reflect current conditions, the 1921 Census of Canada went public, showing what life was like, in authentic detail, for citizens nearly a century ago.

That’s great for fans of family trees and downright awful for anyone else who seeks to obtain a faithful picture of our present times – though some might yet extrapolate from the form and fit of great-grandma’s bloomers the spending habits of the modern, smartphone-addicted tween demographic.

Still, StatsCan insists the problem with the 2011 data had little, or nothing, to do with the controversial shift to an optional household survey, from a mandatory nose count of the population, three years ago.

Indeed, Marc Hamel, a census manager, told The Globe and Mail  this week, “We were in the final stages and some of the results seemed odd, a bit. When we went back to the data-processing steps, we discovered that one of the steps was not applied correctly. . .It is unfortunate that it was in the late stages. But it’s lucky we found it before it was released.”

The actual statement on the numbers-crunching agency’s website is a marvel of circumspection: “The release of the third and final set of data from the 2011 National Household Survey is postponed to September 11, 2013. The release focuses on income, earnings, housing and shelter costs. Statistics Canada found issues in data processing that need to be addressed prior to release. All the data previously released from the National Household Survey are not affected.”

I guess we’ll just have to take its word on that. It’s not as if the agency has any real context for assessing the verisimilitude of the results from the voluntary questionnaire. Apart from the fact that the household survey boasts a much lower response rate than the census (according to the Globe piece, it’s 68.6 per cent versus 93.5 per cent), the new system is still in its infancy.

But why is any of this necessary?

For decades, Canada led the developed world in the quality, comprehensiveness and accuracy of its census data. The numbers served a useful, and often crucial, purpose when legislators sought to craft and implement social and economic policies. The findings materially contributed to health, education and infrastructure programming.

In a 2010 letter to Tony Clement, who was the Minister responsible for Statistics Canada, the Canadian Sociological Association (CSA) argued that “Long‐form data are used by businesses, provinces and municipalities, economists, urban and community researchers, policy analysts, sociologists, and other scholars in the humanities and social sciences (including geographers and historians).

“Religious and ethnic groups are also users. They all rely on the mandatory long form census for solidly representative and accurate data – especially when data are disaggregated to community or minority‐group levels. Whatever the unit of analysis, an accurate statistical portrait of the population – one that allows for cross‐tabulation – is required.This cannot be provided by the voluntary NHS because bias – due to the under‐representation of specific groups – is likely. Aboriginal people, recent immigrants, low‐income families, and perhaps even busy professionals may fail to respond.”

A subsequent CSA blog post rather archly observed, “If the minister responsible for Statistics Canada is to be believed, the long-form census was eliminated so that upright citizens would no longer be threatened with jail time for failure to complete and return a census form that asked intrusive personal questions. A more convincing reason is that we have a government that not only says ‘Don’t bother me with the facts!’ but also wants to ensure that no one else has access to the facts.”

Without facts, of course, we are left with assumptions, suppositions and, in the words of American commentator George F. Will, “factoids” plucked “from the ether.” As he wrote in a piece that appeared recently in The National Post, “implausible and utterly unsubstantiated claims flourish when there is indifference to information.”

How odd that such sentiments should belong to one of the continent’s more notable conservatives.

You might even say, it’s ironic.

Tagged ,

Survey is no replacement for a proper census

DSC_0133

Greater Moncton’s labour force is alive and well and kicking, which may be one reason why fully a-fifth of New Brunswick’s workers will never achieve “Freedom 55”.

Here are a few other “facts” about Canada, now celebrating its 146 birthday, we may not have appreciated, courtesy of Statistics Canada’s National Household Survey 2011, as faithfully reported in The Vancouver Sun:

“We love driving our cars to work. In 2011, almost 93 per cent of people in the workforce drove to work and most drove by themselves. . .English dominates Canadian workplaces, with 85 per cent of the population using the language at work, compared to just 25 per cent who say they use French. . .Chinese languages are the most-commonly used languages in the workplace after English and French. . .Possessing a post-secondary education increases Canadians’ chances of being employed. But there’s no obvious employment benefit to a graduate degree. . .Canadians ages 25 to 34 are far more likely to have trained to be a cook than an auto mechanic or construction worker, when compared to workers closer to retirement.”

Now we know all we need ever comprehend about our families, friends, neighbours; about ourselves in this great and peaceable land. Or do we?

In 2010, back when the federal government announced it was scrapping the mandatory long-form census in favour of a “voluntary” household survey, editorials in just about every major newspaper in Canada screamed their disapproval. The nation’s two top numbers-crunchers Munir Sheikh and Phil Cross actually resigned their posts at Stats Can in evident, if dignified, protest.

In a news advisory at the time, Mr. Sheikh wrote that while he could not “reveal and comment on (the) advice” he gave the government “because this information is protected under the law,” he wanted to “take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census. . .It can not.”

Only a month ago, Robert Gerst, a partner in charge of operational excellence and research and statistical methods at Calgary-based Converge Consulting Group Inc., declared in an opinion piece for the Waterloo Region Record, “Take the first data releases from the national household survey of Statistics Canada. . . .The quality of the results has come under criticism because the voluntary survey replaced the compulsory long-form census questionnaire. In effect, this replaced a random sample with a non-random sample. Non-random samples have their place, but making conclusions about the population isn’t one of them.

Naturally, then, “no conclusions about the Canadian population can be drawn from the national household survey. Since making these types of conclusions is the whole point of a census, the survey data is worthless. (This is also true for any survey where participation is voluntary, including citizen, customer and employee satisfaction surveys).”

What, then, justifies the heavy media coverage of the survey? (The Globe and Mail devoted its entire Folio section to the data). Aren’t we, in the Fourth Estate, supposed to suspect this sort of information. In fact, isn’t that our job description? On the other hand, when faced with a bunch of lemons, there’s really only one thing to do.

Intuitively, the survey results seem valid. They track neatly with the more rigorous findings of the 2006 census: Canada’s population was getting older; most commuters in major cities did tend to drive themselves to work; possessing an undergraduate degree did improve an individual’s likelihood of landing a good job. That much appears not to have changed.

But the farther out we go from a proper census (broad, random sampling), the less verisimilitude the findings display. A decade from now, we may no longer be able to trust that the survey results are grounded in enough truth to say anything accurate or useful about our families, friends, neighbours; about ourselves.

In an age when information, increasingly, unlocks the door to economic growth, this seems oddly and regrettably retrograde.

Tagged ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 586 other followers

%d bloggers like this: