Long live the mandatory census! or maybe not?

[This post is based on my comments at “Celebrating the Census,”  a panel discussion organized by the McGill University Centre on Population Dynamics held in Montreal on April 29th, 2016. Other members of the panel were Jean-Yves Duclos, Sebastien Breau, Ian Culbert, Ariane Krol, Mary Jo Hoeksema, and the moderator Celine LeBourdais.]

The Census is built block-face by block-face. It is built sub-division by sub-division. Village, township, city, municipality, it is built until the entire country is perfectly and completely tiled.

The Census is a machine, complicated and intricate. And the public servants working at Statistics Canada should be rightly proud of the hard work and dedication devoted to the development, maintenance, and management of this machine. Even the most jaundiced among us, regardless of political persuasion, should recognize and acknowledge this accomplishment.

RH Coast looking north over Jean Talon S0001
The Jean Talon building, in the bottom right, was originally called the “Census Building.” Photograph by Philip Smith.

The value of this machine is that it lets us see ourselves in detail more precise than any other mirror, and the return of a mandatory long form, in which Canadians are required to offer up a description of some of the most private aspects of their lives, is hailed by many as a major turn in public policy that will allow this picture to stay clearly focused.

But the Census is more than a machine. Jean Talon knew that. The very first Census he conducted, beginning in the later part of 1666, was clearly an act of nation building. He used it to help him, and France, develop and build a viable colony extending from the shores of the Saint Lawrence River, transforming the countryside into a prosperous agricultural region that would prepare the way for waves and waves of more immigrants. The Census is an act of political imagination.

And the public servants who work at Statistics Canada are not well placed to exercise that imagination, even if at times what they do in managing the machine casts them in that role.

There is still much to be done for Canadians to accept and appreciate the benefits of the Census, and for the federal government to give them ownership of the results. The Census is mandatory—by law it must be filled out—but we should strive to think of it as voluntary, our participation to be both exercised and celebrated as an act of citizenship in a way that fosters each Canadian’s political imagination.

The forces pulling us apart

The fabric of Canadian society is continually pulled and stretched apart, and then re-knitted anew in ways that is hard for each generation to fully see and appreciate. The long form of the Census offers a series of pictures of these changes, and its value comes from being able to regularly paint them in detail.

Here are just two examples. They are important examples because they address two groups who traditionally are much less likely to participate in voluntary surveys, and whose size is rather small. Surveys that even involve as many as 40 to 50 thousand Canadians will not capture many of them in fine enough detail.

Income inequality is on the rise because the top 1% of earners are capturing a larger and larger fraction of total earnings. This is now a well documented fact in many countries, including Canada. For the longest time it was not seen because the top 1% are too small a group to be accurately measured in voluntary surveys, to say nothing of their tendency to decline participating. The use of income tax data has helped pull the curtain aside, and reveal a significant increase in their share of income.

Source: Miles Corak (2016), “Inequality is the source of all evil, or maybe not”, using Statistics Canada administrative data.

But to make sense of this we need to know something about these people, and what they do. They may well be the most productive members of our society, the high-tech entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates whose energy, talents, and innovations have made all our lives better through the computer revolution that has changed how we communicate, shop, and travel. Why shouldn’t they be making more money?

Or they may be much less innovative, making their money by having the power to shift collective wealth into private pockets. The source of their wealth being political strength and organization that allows higher pay in the private and public sectors. Lucky CEOs in the resource sector that ride the wave of higher commodity prices, or favourable exchange rate movements.

The Census has been used by researchers to paint much more detailed pictures of the education, occupation, and geography of the top 1%, that clarifies which of these interpretations is closer to the truth. Doctors and senior managers dominate the top 1%, and they tend to live in Toronto or Calgary. They don’t have degrees in engineering, computer science, or other skills specifically associated with high-tech.

The economic and social prospects of immigrants is another force that has great potential to pull us apart. And like many other less advantaged groups they are also much less likely to participate in voluntary surveys, though the reasons may certainly differ and are varied.

I have argued that it is the long-term prospects of the children of immigrants that should be both considered a major success, but also a major social challenge. Many immigrants face significant difficulties in getting a foothold in a new land, but you can imagine the disenchantment if these sacrifices don’t lead to better lives for their children. If the children of immigrants do not become full and complete participants in Canadian society, then potentially we all have a real problem.

Age at arrival and dropping out of high school
Source: Miles Corak (2011), “Age at Immigration and the Education Outcomes of Children,” using Statistics Canada, Census 2006.

In some of my research I have used very detailed information from the 2006 long form Census to chart the chances that children who come to Canada will not obtain a high school diploma. The Census allowed me to focus very narrowly on immigrants coming from countries in which neither English nor French is spoken, then look even more finely at the fraction dropping out of high school according to how old they were when they arrived in Canada.

Age at arrival doesn’t really matter all that much for the chances of eventually dropping out of high school if children were about 10 years or younger when they came, but then the chances do a “hockey stick” and rise steadily. Children who came as teenagers have a very high chance of not finishing high school.

In what way should the Census be voluntary?

Statue of Jean Talon outside the National Assembly in Quebec City.

The Census itself is a machine that can either pull us apart, or draw us together because it is more than a machine. Many Canadians will see it as government intrusion. And it is. If we don’t foster and understand the Census as an act of collective and individual imagination, it will remain an imperfect and contentious intrusion for many.

Certainly, there is a heavy onus on Statistics Canada, and by implication the current government, to not just make the Census less onerous to complete, to give assurances that private information will be kept confidential, and to explain how the information will be used.

It will be very interesting to see what will happen to response rates. 2016 is not 2006, for the simple reason that it comes after 2011, when we flirted with voluntary participation. Many of the justifications Statistics Canada and others have given for the Census have a top-down rationale, and the flavour of “I’m from the government, and am here to help you.”

This is increasingly less and less acceptable in the kind of information age we are living, and that is constantly evolving. The long run challenge for Statistics Canada is not simply to run a better more efficient machine, but to strive to give direct ownership of the results to individual Canadians. A much more imaginative and user-friendly dissemination policy needs to be part of this.

Any democratically elected future government has the right to make the Census voluntary, or for that matter to eliminate altogether. The case for a Census ultimately rests on the participation of Canadian citizens, and the Census should be “voluntary” in the sense that we all wish to participate, to define it as a responsible act of citizenship, but also to see it as our own tool to reflect on our lives, not simply as something governments, researchers, and businesses will use to manage our lives for us.


One thought on “Long live the mandatory census! or maybe not?

  1. Any Census constitutes the largest sampling effort to reach the N number for populations. Yet, statistical techniques of sampling could make a voluntary Census reliable. However, I would prefer to have a mandatory Census with, perhaps, same level of reliability as a voluntary one, but with higher level of reliability for demographic and policy issues regarding minorities. Thanks for the post. Econometricus.com

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