‘This is simply ridiculous’: The census and Audrey Tobias

The National Household Survey is panned again

That quote above is from a spokeswoman for Industry Minister James Moore, commenting on the fact that a nice little old lady is in trouble for not filling out the short-form census.

But what in particular is ridiculous about this situation? One can make a reasonable argument that it is ridiculous that a nice little old lady would be threatened with prison, if even only in theory, for refusing to fill out the short-form census, even if the basis for the nice little old lady’s refusal is fairly debatable. But the Harper government has had a majority in the House and Senate for more than a year now and the Conservatives promised in August 2010 to remove the theoretical threat of jail from all mandatory government surveys. And so if it is ridiculous that the theoretical threat still exists, then the Conservatives should simply ask themselves why they haven’t moved to spare that nice little old lady the grief.

Is it ridiculous that we still have mandatory surveys of any kind? You might wish to argue as much, but then you’d have to consider what happened when we replaced the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary survey.

The Globe has now reported back on what it heard when it surveyed researchers and statistics experts.

Munir Sheikh, Statistics Canada’s former chief statistician who resigned in 2010 over the decision to scrap the census, said the effort has been a waste of money. “The irony is, we’ve spent more money compared to a census to get data which is largely useless. Why anyone would want to do this is beyond me. Why would you spend $600-million for this?” said Mr. Sheikh, who is now an adjunct professor at Queen’s University.

One analyst says the National House Survey’s income data is “pretty much garbage” and he a few colleagues have penned an op-ed to explain their findings.

In short, all the good news from the NHS is nonsense. The sad thing is that the news is now “official.” It comes from official government of Canada statistics. It will, no doubt, be used in partisan ways. It will be used to confuse the debate about the growing gap between rich and poor. It will be used to make it appear that Canada is becoming more equal, when the opposite is happening…

The income data in the National Household Survey is not valid. It should not be used or cited. It should be withdrawn. The 2016 census should be restored to the non-politicized, non-partisan scientific methodology that existed prior to the flawed 2011 National Household Survey.

And to their concerns these analysts follow various others.

So we can’t know as much about income equality and parts of HamiltonWinnipegSaskatchewan and western and rural Canada have disappeared and the city planners with the country’s most-populace city say the NHS can be relied on for historical comparisons. (With maps and charts, Global’s Patrick Cain explains who didn’t respond.) And, yes, it did cost more to produce less-reliable data.

This also seems rather ridiculous.

Three years ago, in the midst of the tumult around the demise of the long-form census, the National Statistics Council, the government-appointed body that advises the chief statistician, came forward with a series of proposals.

The National Statistics Council recommends:

  1. That, as part of a formal consultation process beginning with the 2016 Census, Statistics Canada examine each Census question to ensure that it, at a minimum, meets one of the following tests for inclusion in the Census:
    1. It is required by legislation or Cabinet direction,
    2. It is needed for small-area data uses for which there is no alternative data source,
    3. It is needed to create benchmarks for measuring difficult-to-reach groups and ensuring that subsequent surveys or data derived from administrative sources can be sampled or weighted to reflect accurately the overall population,
    4. It is needed to assess progress on issues of national importance, for example the economic integration of new immigrants, or
    5. It is to be used as a basis for post-censal survey sampling of relatively small or dispersed groups, for example, urban Aboriginals or people with health conditions that limit their activity.

Even if a question met this requirement, it would still face tests of its overall importance to the Canadian statistical system and the needs of data users as weighed against cost and the intrusiveness of the question.

  1. The Council is aware that other countries have conducted successful censuses without people having to face the potential of jail as a punishment for not filling out census forms. We, therefore, recommend that the Statistics Act be amended to remove jail sentences as a possible punishment for not filling out the Census. At the same time, the Council recommends that jail continue to be a punishment for those who wilfully break confidentiality provisions.
  2. That the Census for 2011 include the long form being used for 20% of the population as the only way, given the very short timeframe, to safeguard the quality of the Canadian statistical system.

That the question series on household activities (question 33 in the 2006 long-form Census) be dropped as it was the question that occasioned the largest number of objections among the substantive questions and since it fails to meet any of the five tests outlined in point 

So review all the questions to ensure their necessity. Drop those related to household activities that have been the subject of complaint. Drop the threat of prison. But otherwise maintain a mandatory long-form census.

If the Harper government adopted those proposals now, it could be sure that in the wake of the 2016 census there would both be less reason for anyone to complain about the reliability of the data and no reason for any nice little old lady to fear imprisonment.

Indeed, let us mind our elders. Ms. Tobias rationale for refusing the short-form census might be debatable and it might be ridiculous that she is theoretically being threatened with the theoretical threat of prison, but on her way to court this week she seemed actually to have maintained some faith in the civil responsibility of the census and the usefulness of reliable data.

“What, are they going to put a little 89-year-old in jail? Well, let them,” Tobias said, defiant and livid that it has come to this. “Shouldn’t the federal government face the same courts for killing the long-form census?”

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