On the same day that national media were parsing newly released data from the 2011 census, a panel of researchers at this year’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences renewed their call for a return of the mandatory long-form census.
“Why do we still need a census? Let me count the ways,” said Susan McDaniel, Canada Research Chair in Global Population and Life Course and a sociology professor at the University of Lethbridge. Dr. McDaniel called into question the data collected from the 2011 voluntary household survey because of the survey’s low response rate.
More than 98 percent of Canadian households responded to the 2011 short-form census, a larger percentage than in 2006. But the response rate to the 2011 voluntary National Household Survey, which replaced the mandatory long-form census, was just 69.3 percent. It isn’t known for certain who didn’t respond, but Dr. McDaniel said it’s likely the non-respondents included disadvantaged groups and the rich. “So we have a biased sample,” she contended.
The household survey cost about $30 million more to administer than the previous long-form questionnaire, in part because the government increased the sample size to one in three households from one in five, she said. The 2011 household survey went to about 4.5 million households.
What’s more, she continued, the spending cuts under way at Statistics Canada, part a broader federal spending review, mean that still more surveys are likely to be eliminated, making a return of the mandatory long-form census all the more pressing.
The census is administered every five years by Statistics Canada. The federal government announced in 2010 that it would eliminate the mandatory long-form questionnaire that asks detailed questions about income, housing, education and other topics. The Stephen Harper-led government retained the mandatory short-form census, which goes to all Canadian households and collects basic demographic data.
The long-form survey was replaced with voluntary one, in a move widely criticized by researchers, academics, business groups, municipalities and others who rely on the data. The government argued the change was necessary because of privacy considerations.
Dr. McDaniel dismissed that argument. She said the questions contained in the long-form census had been thoroughly tested by Statistics Canada, and privacy concerns were raised by just a small fraction of people. “That means privacy is really an excuse rather than the reason for eliminating the long-form census,” she said.
Another panelist, Dan Hiebert, a geography professor at the University of British Columbia, said anyone who subscribes to a loyalty-card program is giving away much more data to private companies than the information required by the long-form census.
But panelist Rod Beaujot, sociology professor at Western University, said privacy concerns shouldn’t be ignored. In addition to the 30 percent of households that declined to respond to the voluntary survey, 17.6 percent of Canadians declined to give the government authority to make their personal information public 92 years after its collection (by checking a box on the 2011 census form), said Dr. Beaujot; 18.4 percent were unwilling to give the agency permission to collect their income data from Revenue Canada. “The privacy concerns are real, and we need both better data on this very question and better discussion of the matter with the public and political leaders,” he said.
Dr. McDaniel said there are indications the government may be open to changes in future census forms. She noted that the federal government has asked the National Statistics Council, an advisory body of which she’s a member, and other groups for advice on preparing the 2016 census, something it didn’t do ahead of the 2011 survey. She raised the possibility of expanding future short-form questionnaires to include more questions, a move supported by others on the panel.
“We shouldn’t let the issue die because we lost that one battle in 2011,” she said. “We lost the battle, but not the war.”
The panelists also included Damaris Rose, a researcher at Montreal’s l’Institut national de la recherche scientifique (Université INRS), and Richard Wright, geography professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Dr. Wright said the United States is in the midst of its own census debate, with the House of Representatives recently voting to eliminate the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census largely because of costs. Similar to Canada’s household survey, the ACS replaced the U.S. long-form census and asks questions about housing, education, language and ancestry.
This year’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences took place at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University from May 26 to June 2. More than 7,400 researchers and students attended the event.