Something of a compromise on the census?

The long-form census isn’t coming back, but the short-form census might be more useful



In a statement released on Monday, Statistics Canada announced that in 2016, as in 2011, there will be a compulsory short-form census and a voluntary national household survey. The mandatory long-form census that was controversially eliminated in 2010 is not scheduled to return, despite complaints about the quality of data produced by the voluntary survey in 2011.

But StatsCan has made one notable change to the process.

. . . in order to reduce the time required and to make it easier for Canadians to respond to the National Household Survey, income questions will be replaced with more precise tax and benefit data that have been available to Statistics Canada since 1985. As this will be done for all Canadians, income information for 2016 will be the most accurate in the history of the census.

What does this mean?

Within the 2011 national household survey were various questions about income. But respondents were also given the option to skip those, if they agreed to let Statistics Canada access information already provided in their tax filings.

To save time, each person can give Statistics Canada permission to use the income information already available in his or her income tax files . . .

The same option was available on the 2006 long-form census. According to Statistics Canada, the same approach has been used with other household surveys, and “the overwhelming majority of Canadians granted permission to Statistics Canada to access their data, rather than respond to detailed questions.” Starting in 2011, the agency says, it began informing respondents to other household surveys that income information would be used automatically. And that’s what will be the case for the 2016 census: Instead of the option to allow StatsCan to use income and benefit information, the information will be used automatically.

In addition to saving respondents time, StatsCan says it will save the agency money. In the case of 2016, income data will be linked to census responses.

Liberal MP Ted Hsu had proposed a private member’s bill to, among other things, reinstate the long-form census. That bill was defeated in February, but, at the time, he told me about a possible compromise: adding some number of questions to the short-form census to provide a better statistical basis. UBC economist Kevin Milligan dubbed this the “medium-form census” and Milligan says he’s somewhat pleased with the change. “I think it is a step toward a medium-form census,” he says. “If I couldn’t have a long-form census, and I was asked for one change to the short form, this is what I would have asked for.”

Hsu would still rather have the long-form census—something the Liberals are committed to reinstating if they form government—and notes that the voluntary nature of the NHS will still create problems. Hsu also thinks it would be useful to link tax and benefit data to the NHS so that income could be correlated with dwelling, education and labour market information. Milligan would also rather have income data linked to the NHS, but says, “Having it for short form gets you pretty close to the tools you need to make some decent weights that make all the other surveys (like NHS) more useful.”

And though Hsu doesn’t think the use of tax and benefit information is a big deal, he does think there needs to be a conversation about possible privacy implications if the government moves further to use administrative data that it already possesses. Back in 2010, when debate arose over the government’s decision to eliminate the long-form census, the Scandinavian model of data collection and use raised as a possible alternative, but the databases maintained by those countries might raise questions for Canadians about the handling of personal information.

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