Tag Archives: voluntary household survey

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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All the data that’s not fit to print

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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.

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