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.

Continue reading “Long live the mandatory census! or maybe not?”

Inequality may be complex, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make sense of it

The Fraser Institute has weighed in on the income inequality debate with a report called “Income inequality: measurement sensitivities” that reviews the statistical measurement of income inequality in Canada.

The report quite rightly points out that there are many nuances in the measurement of income, and income inequality, and that the results vary substantially depending upon how economists and statisticians deal with them. Is income measured by earnings, or by total income that includes not just business and investment income but also government transfers? Should it be measured before or after taxes? And should we be looking at total family income or try to represent this as individual income by accounting for family size?

The analysis is carefully done and clearly presented, and though it covers ground that is pretty well standard for many economists working in this area, it helps to clarify the issues for a broader audience.

But the study concludes, in the words of the screaming press release, that there is “No income inequality crisis in Canada when it’s properly measured.”

That is the wrong inference to be making. What the study is missing is a coherent understanding of the link the different measures it so accurately calculates. As a result it misses important policy lessons.

Continue reading “Inequality may be complex, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make sense of it”

The US unemployment is lower than the Canadian, but not by as much as the official statistics suggest

The unemployment rate in the United States fell to 5.3% in June, while the Canadian rate as of May stands at 6.8%. When Statistics Canada releases the June numbers on July 10th they are unlikely to show much improvement.

But when comparing the two countries it is important to remember that there are subtle differences in statistical methods that tend to push the  Canadian statistic higher than the American. The unemployment rate in Canada would be 6.1% if it were calculated using US methods, rather than 6.8%

The gap between the two may be significant and it may grow even larger, but it is not as big as the official statistics suggest. See this 2012 post for an explanation.

UNICEF gives Canada a passing grade, child poverty actually fell during the recession … or did it?

UNICEF Children of the Recession Innocenti Report Card 12 CoverLet’s see if we can make sense of this.

UNICEF has just given Canada a passing grade, mind you barely a pass, when it comes to the fight against child poverty. In a report released today it claims that 21% of Canadian children live in poverty, nothing to brag about, but at least this is lower than the 23% who were poor just before the recession started in 2008.

Interestingly, Statistics Canada also says child poverty is down, but that only 8.5% of kids are poor. However, at the same time it says child poverty is up, reaching almost 14%. And finally, if this is not confusing enough, it says that, yes, 14% of kids are poor, but this is down since 2008.

Up or down? One-in-five kids poor, or one-in-seven, or maybe even as few as only one-in-eleven?

Continue reading “UNICEF gives Canada a passing grade, child poverty actually fell during the recession … or did it?”

A FactBook about employment in Canada based upon Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey

Employment of young people in Canada

Every month Statistics Canada releases employment and other labour market indicators. They are much used, much discussed, and arguably much misinterpreted. Here is a short FactBook about employment, using information from January 2005 to August 2014, clarifying some of the definitions, offering some suggestions on how to use the numbers, and highlighting some of the recent trends.

Employment Factbook using Labour Force Survey from Statistics Canada January 2005 to August 2014

There are three major messages:

  1. If you want to be “really” certain that a month to month change in employment is not just statistical noise, then it has to be pretty large, say larger than 57,000
  2. Employment has barely kept up with population growth during the last five years; for young people this is not even the case, there being no growth at all
  3. The fraction of the working age population employed has yet to return to pre-recession levels, and has been falling during the past year, which seems to be due to a fall in the employment rate of women

Employment in Canada is up by a million … but that is hardly enough

one-in-a-million

“Employment is up by one million since the recession ended.”

A statement like this may indeed be a big talking point when Statistics Canada releases the results of its monthly Labour Force Survey on Friday.

While a million more people at work sounds like a lot, the Canadian population has also increased by roughly the same amount with the result that the fraction of Canadians working has been pretty well unchanged for the last five years, and has yet to return to rates before the recession.

A million is a big number, but it’s not enough to signal a complete recovery from the recession.

Continue reading “Employment in Canada is up by a million … but that is hardly enough”