Clucking all the way to the knowledge(less) bank

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Chickens come home to roost in surprising numbers, even when the coop has been closed and the barn doors have been bolted. Any farmer will tell you this.

Of course, we don’t listen to farmers, or barn builders or coop-tenders, anymore. We no longer regard the expert opinions of teachers, economists, writers, artists, scientists, urban planners, and early childhood developers.

And when we talk to our neighbours, who may have something cogent to say about the way we live now, we’re apt to smile lamely as we dismiss their pontifications as rarified opinions. . .Nothing to do with us.

Evidence is, after all, just a matter of conjecture – is it not?

That, at any rate, is what certain federal politicians want us to embrace and hold close to our hearts, as, thanks to them, we have been without a mandatory long-form census at Statistics Canada for nearly five years.

But, wait, the chickens are finally coming home to roost.

According to a Globe and Mail story this week, “planners” insist that the cancellation, in 2010, of this worthy instrument of public and social policy – on nothing more than a whim to warm the backbenches of certain Conservative office holders in Ottawa – has “damaged research in key areas, from how immigrants are doing in the labour market to how the middle class is faring, while making it more difficult for cities to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely.”

How? The answer is: We literally don’t know.

We don’t know enough to ask the right questions, sculpt the right surveys, obtain the right data.

What we suspect, however, is that the preponderance of evidence we do have strongly indicates that our federal government, in its move from a formal census to a voluntary question-and-answer sheet, actively wants to keep Canadians in the dark about themselves and their communities.

Worse, the new-normal actually costs taxpayers more money. “The last census in 2011 cost a total of $652-million, including an extra $22-million due to the change to the voluntary National Household Survey, “ the Globe reports. “The total budget for the 2016 census won’t be decided until February or March, Statscan has said. But the current plan is to hold another voluntary survey. All told, 35,000 people will be hired for this effort.”

Says Charles Beach, a Queen’s University professor of economics, in the Globe piece: “It has certainly impacted my own work on what has been happening to middle-class earnings in Canada.”

Indeed, he says, it has “inhibited research into inequality and identifying winners and losers in economic growth, research into understanding the national problems of the have-nots in the economy, and research into how best to provision local government services.”

Adds Harvey Low, Toronto’s man in charge of social research for that city: “It has definitely had an impact in the way we plan for services. . .We are less sure. . .We definitely have to spend extra dollars on pursuing other sources of data. . .and the staff time to assess whether we can use it to compare over time.”

Meanwhile, complains Sara Mayo of the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, Ontario: “In terms of fiscal prudence, this made no sense. Why would any government want to pay more for worse-quality data?”

As the group, Evidence for Democracy astutely notes: “Voluntary surveys receive lower response rates when compared to mandatory ones. Typically, vulnerable populations [new immigrants, Aboriginals, low-income, single parents] and those with the highest income have lower response rates; thus, data about their demographics is poorly represented in voluntary surveys. This lack of robust information about important groups leads to skewed data sets, poor decision-making, and costly government policy mistakes.”

Shall we count the ways in which governments make poor policy decisions even when presented with good, countable evidence?

After all, the price of oil was supposed to soar forever, pundits insisted, despite the fact that, historically, it has always plunged.

Cluck, cluck. Something scratching this way comes.

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