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Whats up with the Census?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 30, 2010

Recently the Harper government has decided to scrap the long form census while maintain the short form…both are mandatoryalthough that fact is often missed in the media coverage. There are two main reasons to agree with Harper and two to oppose him. First is the issue of the census being mandatory, it is with a fine up to $5000. However that is never mentioned by Harper et all is that no one has EVER been fined (based upon my researcher and a meta-search of others research). So this seems a red-herring.
The other issue the Anti-LongFromers (those with a negative attitude to the long form) have is the “intrusive” nature of the questions. The modern form asks you less information that the mandatory income tax form, nor more than Employment Canada asks from its clients. In fact the big question quoted in the press is “the number of bedrooms in your residence” (something asked for property taxes). Not very intrusive and not any worse than any number of other forms in our modern society. Now a little history might put this into context and shed light on how truly ‘intrusive’ the modern form is.
History of Canadian Census(1)
Even enumerations back in the 1700s, prior to census-taking, asked highly personal questions regarding the amount of stock in a household, the number of swords and guns, race and religious beliefs. One must remember that at the time, when most of what were called Canadians were recently conquered French or English and the tension between these two groups was high.
The modern census started in 1871. That Census asked 211 questions on area, land holdings, vital statistics, education, administration, the military, justice, agriculture, commerce, industry and finance. The population field included the age, sex, religion, education, race and occupation of each person.
Number of questions grew from 216 in 1891 to 561 in 1901. The max questions were in 1921 with 565.By 1986 it was done to 55. The 2006 census had 53 plus depending on how you count questions.
Now some point that you can’t trust ‘faceless bureaucrats’ who spy on your private information and use it for mischievous or nefarious purposes. But this stereotypical portrayal of ‘mistrust of civil servants’ seems wrong. When on the 2006 Census, StatsCan provided an option where people could voluntarily allow StatsCan access to their Customs and Revenue Agency information (ie income tax forms) over 82% agreed. Trust does not seem to be an issue.
Okay, but some people just don’t want to give out any information, even if redundant. First, as mentioned earlier, you can get away with giving it a miss. The number of non-reporters was very small although some native bands boycotted en-mass. Secondly, it is import information for StatsCan to have. This information is used by government and other entities (I should note here all identifiable information is redacted and kept hidden for a period of 92 yrs(2). What is accessible is the correlated numbers, not actual forms).
Why the mandatory long form is important
It is a persistent long term data set allowing for longitudinally modelling and data-mining analysis. That is it is a consistent measure unlike any other source of information available. Because of its coverage of the population is almost complete and its very large sample size, it allowing researchers to conduct more detailed analysis of income inequality and socio-economic factors especially at the ‘tail ends’ of the curves where self-reporting often distorts.
Harper want to replace the mandatory form with a voluntarily survey(3). However this has major issues. Firstly, sample bias, if voluntary you will get self selection bias (among others). To make a sample statistically significant, efforts must be made to ensure the responders are representative. Secondly, inconsistency of data. Surveys change with time and as different departments/groups are responsible for them the quality of the questions change. StatsCan is the staffed by the best statistical and social scientist in the country, whose lives missions have been since 1871 to ensure the purity, quality and consistency of the data set. Once it becomes a survey, it is like to be transferred to other hands or more likely more dangerously divided up; making future accurate analysis impossible.
For example(4), in 2000, the Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics reported average income in the bottom Percentile  of just under $8,000 , whereas the Census found incomes of $6,000 – 25% less than SLID. Average income in the top 10%  is also higher in the Census than the SLID, meaning “the ratio of the average income in the top 10%  to the average in the bottom 10%  was 16.4 according to the Census but only 11.7 according to SLID.” That is the level of poverty in the country was under reported by the survey and the degree of inequality in the nation was underestimate by almost 40%
So why the big push now, to change things?
There are sever things that could be at play. The first is meme-contagion; that is a cultural meme/virus that has spread from one society to another. There are conservative moments to get rid of the Census in the UK and the USA as well as here in Canada.
Conservative Cameron’s UK government announced recently that the UK was thinking of abolishing all its census taking and rely on other databases of information for governmental decision making(5). There is also a strong conservative movement south of the border which seems intent on dismantle the social state.
In doing my research, i noted that these critics were not so disturbed by the mandatory fine, for there no one could point to anyone actually charged (although some made reference to court challenged, but that seemed the individual suing the Census and not the Census sue the individual). Down south the issue is BIG GOVERNMENT(6). That the census is unconstitutional; great worry was made about the “spying” of census takers of people ‘private property’ and that this would somehow lead to a Gestapo state.
Another main them was that the census was a welfare scam. Many Anti-Census types complained that census takers either got paid for doing nothing (“just walking the park estimating age, race, gender”), scamming, or associated with Acorn(7).
Many Anti-Census types complain about ‘harassment’, but that is because they ‘refuse by ignoring’ to fill out form or talk to census taker. So Census workers kept asking them to fill in the form…a self created issue. None complained of legal action.
Of course there also a guilt by association. Many of the sites i visited hosted “Sarah Palin” ads, tea party support or were some libertarian/Ron-Paul forum. The “constitutional” rebels they pointed, those who said they would rather go to jain than fill out a census (remember here no one seems to have ever been charge/fines, not a risky stance to hold) are you usual right-wing nut jobs – Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh(8), Rep. Michele Bachmann  and Carl Rove(9).
Lastly, one argument i heard as to why they want to get rid of the best source of data on and of Canada is outsourcing. The UK conservatives explicitly state they want to find more ‘cost effective’ ways of getting information. This reliance on ‘third party’ or private companies for statistical data could be used as an ‘excuse’ for companies (like Visa, FaceBook) to hold large amounts of ‘personal’ data that is ‘unrelated’ to their core business.
Of course, you might be skeptical of that last one?
6) Just do a google search for unconstitutional census, you’ll get a crack full.

One Response to “Whats up with the Census?”

  1. Maxine said

    The jail terms, the welfare scams are a smoke screen. It appeals to the lowest common denominator and unfortunately reveals how little intelligence the Conservatives think the populace has. I believe another reason for the change in census taking protocol is to provide a basis for the government to spend its resources as it chooses not necessarily where it is needed. By this I mean ..it is understood that stats provide the necessary info for the allocation of funds. If the reliable info does not exist on a issue it takes away the relevancy. With no mandatory reliable information stats the government will be allowed to ignore many needs simply because the backup stats are non-existent.

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