July 19, 2010

The census and poverty reduction

Statistics ain't the kind of thing that you'd think would stir up controversy. But the Harper Government's decision to make the long-form census voluntary has done just that.

At one level, I'm amazed by the unanimity of opposition to the decision. It's not just academics who oppose the change but business groups, municipalities, and religious groups too. But when you consider that all those groups rely on the accuracy of information from the census to do their work, you can begin to understand that a change in the census that threatens to undermine the accuracy of the data would stir controversy.

So it is for efforts to end poverty. Effective strategies to end poverty rely on accurate information about how many people are living in poverty. Good information can help governments and communities plan policies and programs to meet the needs of the people most impacted by poverty.

For example, census data has shown that over the last two decades povety rates have been climbing for new Canadians. This is despite the fact that recent newcomers to Canada are more highly educated than those who immigrated to Canada thirty or forty years ago.

Census data has helped map poverty in Canadian cities, helping to identify where programs to help low-income families with young children, for example, are most needed.

Those are just a couple of examples. Good census data is also needed to see how other groups disproportionately impacted by poverty -- people with disabilities, people from racialized groups, aboriginal people, women -- are faring.

The Canadian Council on Social Development has this to say about the Long Form Census:

What is the Long Form Census? It asks 53 additional questions to 20 per cent of Canadian households at census time, mostly focusing on social, economic, cultural questions. It typically takes 20 minutes on average to complete. The average household will receive the long-form once every 25 years (once every 5 censuses). Filling out the long-form is significantly less work and is certainly no more "invasive" than filling out tax forms which we are required to do every year. Identifiable Census data on individual respondents has never been compromised or revealed or released to anyone - privacy is assured.

Jeffrey Simpson at the Globe and Mail had an insightful column on the ideological rationale behind the Harper Government's decision on the census.

You can sign on to a petition if you want to support efforts to keep the mandatory long-form census and ensure reliable information is available to inform efforts to end poverty and develop good social policy and community programs.

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