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Policy making suffering in Canada without the long-form census

Parliamentarians should back a bill by MP Ted Hsu to restore the mandatory survey so intelligent and accurate decisions can be made about economic policy, Paul Jacobson says.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The heated debate over skills shortages and temporary foreign workers reminds us how much Canadians have lost as a result of the government's move four years ago to scrap the mandatory long-form census. Without the granular data on jobs and wages across the country that was among the survey's most valuable components, it has become all but impossible to draw intelligent – or even accurate – conclusions about these and other critical aspects of economic policy.

Fortunately, not all is lost. The member of Parliament for Kingston and the Islands, Ted Hsu, will see his private member's bill debated for the first time in the House of Commons on Thursday. It would require the government to restore the mandatory long-form census. Parliamentarians from all parties would do their country a service by supporting Mr. Hsu's initiative.

The replacement of the census questionnaire by a voluntary national household survey, known as the NHS, has become a major concern for the more than 900 members of the Canadian Association of Business Economics.

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We predicted from the start that the demise of the mandatory long-form census would create serious problems. Experience has taught that most organizations, whether businesses, governments or charities, do much of their work at the local level, and thus rely heavily on detailed geographical statistics for planning, selling, employing, building, donating and many of their other economic activities.

Our concerns have turned out to be fully justified.

Many Canadians have chosen not to respond to the voluntary household survey at all, or to complete only part of the survey form.

The highest non-response rates have been in rural and low-income areas where the need for robust data is arguably most pressing to support sound decision making. While it is difficult to generalize, non-response rates in urban areas appear to be highest at each end of the income spectrum.

Statistics Canada wisely decided in 2010 to publish data collected by the household survey only for areas with a response rate of at least 50 per cent. The result is that data are no longer available for a quarter of Canada's towns and counties. In Saskatchewan, the loss is over 40 per cent; in Newfoundland and Labrador, over 30 per cent. These are the two fastest-growing provinces in Canada.

Comparisons between towns, counties and regions have become impossible in too many cases, even in heavily populated urban areas. Comparisons between neighbourhoods – once a staple of census analysis – are now of questionable feasibility.

Discrepancies in individual responses are even more worrisome. Because the new survey is not mandatory, responses to questions, especially those toward the end, are less accurate and comprehensive than was the case with the census.

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Perhaps the biggest casualty of the switch to the new survey is the ability to analyze trends over time – among the most critical components of any research tool. The household survey and the long-form census are so different that we are no longer able to compare different periods in a statistically rigorous way.

We see nothing wrong in requiring Canadians by law to complete a survey as important as this one. Even in the U.S., where trust in government is not exactly high, the American Community Survey is mandatory. The authorities have reasoned – and few citizens have objected – that a mandatory response is the only way to ensure adequate data quality.

If the government in Ottawa can be persuaded to bring back the mandatory long-form survey for the next census, due in 2016, we will have a gap of 10 years since the last such exercise.

That may not be ideal, but it would be acceptable. The full census was conducted at 10-year intervals prior to the introduction of the current five-year cycle in 1986. Indeed, a 10-year break would be less disruptive than continuing with the new household survey, which leaves us with a complete break in historical data.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said recently that "you can't manage what you can't measure." His comments were made in the context of child and maternal health, but they apply equally to other areas of policy making, and drive better performance in business planning and economic analysis.

Paul Jacobson is president of the Canadian Association of Business Economics.

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