Losing touch with reality

By Rob Wipond, June 2012

Why we can no longer really know our own community.

I’d felt compelled to be present, to bear witness to this last stand. That’s why I’d attended a number of meetings alongside representatives from the Capital Regional District, municipalities of Victoria and Saanich, Camosun College, Vancouver Island Health Authority, and others helping bring together a report called Growing Prosperity in the Capital Region. 

Drawing on census data from 1996 to 2006, this report was released in April by the Community Social Planning Council. Some interesting insights were included: Poverty in our region remained steady. About 20 percent aged 15-25 were poor. Women, especially women over 75, were amongst the poorest. At least 10 percent of workers lived below the poverty line. It remained difficult to quantify how much the cuts to public services and non-profits, degenerating environmental health, and declining access to land were affecting quality of life. 

I was glad that this important information, and these information gaps, were discussed in the report. However, for me, the whole project also carried an air of funereal futility. After the global financial crisis, we all knew this data was gravely dated. Worse, we knew there was no comparable up-to-date data coming, because our federal Conservative government in 2010 decided to make the long-form census voluntary instead of mandatory. 

“The census is a vital, even pivotal component of our statistical infrastructure,” UBC economists David Green and Kevin Milligan wrote in Canadian Public Policy. Comparing the Conservative’s decision to abandoning upkeep on our power grids and roads, they wrote, “the degradation of the Canadian census has impacts that, while perhaps not immediately clear to Canadians, will eventually have large influences on the quality of Canadian society.” 

Unfortunately, it already is becoming clear—through the immeasurable despair that’s seeping into communities and groups like ours across the country, while any still-thrashing protesters are buried like “old news.” 

“It affects everybody. I don’t think there’s anybody in the country quite frankly that isn’t touched directly or indirectly by the use of census data,” Ian Faris, a research analyst and CRD rep in the Growing Prosperity project, tells me. “Census data are very, very widely used, and it’s not necessarily known by the general populace just exactly how important the information is.” 

And most experts predict the negative impacts of the census changes will be amplified at local levels like ours, because the data pool from a voluntary census is usually smaller and less diverse. 

Faris points to our local social service sector, city planning, health authority and school boards as examples of places where informed decisions are going to become more challenging. “You’ll now no longer be able to produce data, potentially, for smaller geographies such as neighbourhoods,” he says. “And the finer-grained, more detailed data are more likely to suffer.” 

The reasons for this are myriad. Certainly, the long-form census doesn’t provide 100 percent perfect data, but it’s been proven to give us reams of very useful, relatively reliable information about our nation. However, what’s been less widely discussed is how the mandatory census also serves as an effective “benchmark” to ensure the accuracy of virtually every other voluntary survey that Statscan, municipal and provincial governments, pollsters, businesses, non-profits and everyone else does for smaller communities. 

Here’s how it works: Imagine you randomly call 1,000 individuals in Victoria and ask, “Does Victoria need X?” Five hundred hang up on you. Four hundred say, “Yes.” One hundred say, “No.” So you’ve found 80 percent support for X. That’s a persuasive endorsement for your planned government initiative, business enterprise or non-profit service. 

But suppose you also ask another question to correlate your findings with census data. For simplicity’s sake, let’s suppose you ask and discover all 400 yea-sayers earn $45,000 a year, while the 100 nay-sayers all earn $25,000. Canada’s median income is around $45,000, so you figure your survey appropriately captured average Victorians. However, long-form census data shows Victoria is actually a lower-income community where the majority of individuals earn less than $45,000. That means your survey isn’t at all representative of most Victorians. Likely, then, most of the people who hung up on you were poorer (which is common in voluntary surveys), and so you now have to “weight” your lower-income nay-sayers more heavily to correct for your survey’s “bias.” Your recalculations soon reveal a popular mandate for getting rid of X. 

That’s a rudimentary explanation of how bias can get into any smaller-scale voluntary survey, and how the mandatory census data helps correct for bias. 

But consider that our census “benchmark” is now also voluntary, and so will itself be biased in unknown ways, to unknown degrees. Here in Victoria and thousands of other communities, we’ll soon be trying to measure grey areas from slippery slopes. It’s a statistical apocalypse.

“It remains to be seen. It’s kind of uncharted waters,” comments Faris more measuredly in response to my exclamations. “It’s a pretty big concern… It could potentially be a fair amount less accurate.”

This is why this whole topic is becoming more acutely relevant every day. The Growing Prosperity project was, and is still hoping to engage local agencies, organizations and activists who want to delve deeper into this census data and use it as a benchmark to come to grips with problems in our community and develop constructive strategies for change. But who’s going to invest in old news numbers that are becoming ever-fuzzier?

Undoubtedly, virtually every statistic will become more questionable. Income and unemployment statistics will be less reliable. Planning for everything from health and education to housing, transportation and climate change will be hampered by porous information about seniors needs, school catchment demographics, conditions of homes, or how people commute. And because poor people are less likely to complete a voluntary census, we’ll get a national public image that’s more middle class and palatable for incumbent governments, but where it’s impossible to evaluate government programs.

All this is why former Statscan chief Ivan Fellegi told a parliamentary committee that the census is arguably “a critical part of the democratic accountability of governments at all levels.” And it’s why hundreds of groups and agencies have pleaded for reinstating the mandatory long-form census, including provincial and municipal governments, federal government agencies, universities, the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the United Way and other non-governmental organizations, journalists, think tanks, and religious organizations. 

What were the Conservatives thinking? Few know. 

“Did the government analyze carefully the consequences[?]” asked Munir Sheikh in an academic eBook. “[W]hy did the government not consult with data users?” Sheikh’s perplexed questions are noteworthy because he was the Harper-appointed Statscan Chief Statistician when the government made its decision. (Sheikh resigned in protest.)

The Conservatives’ predominant public explanation has been that the census is for some people an uncomfortable intrusion on privacy. This could easily have been alleviated with better communication about the public good behind the specific questions being asked. But in any case, it’s a dubious argument in light of Statscan’s stellar privacy protection record and this same government’s stalwart support for privacy-invasive airport body scanners, centralized health records, the Financial Transactions and Accounts Analysis Centre, Bill C-30’s “online spying” legislation, etc.

The Fraser Institute’s defence of the Conservatives seems revealing. In their review, Niels Veldhuis and Charles Lammam dismiss “academics, economists and social scientists” who support the census as being “elites” from a “vested interest group.” What vested interest? They’re “heavy users of the long-form data.” Veldhuis and Lamman issue rhetorical criticisms like, “it’s hard to see how revealing problems with defective plumbing and peeling paint will help keep the government in check,” as if they’ve never heard of poverty and can’t imagine anyone wanting to understand its pervasiveness. They claim today’s 55-question long-form census goes “well beyond” our census’ original humble, reasonable goals to simply “count the population”—when in fact, Canada’s first census had 211 questions and by 1921 had 565 questions. Along the way, Veldhuis and Lamman never discuss benchmarks, bias, weighting or indeed any aspect of basic statistical science. 

However, of 13 research reports the Fraser Institute released between January and May of 2012, eight relied on long-form census data and two more drew on associated Statscan data. By phone, Veldhuis, who is president of the Fraser Institute, tells me that he doesn’t regard this as hypocritical. “While I believe most bridges should be tolled, I certainly would still drive on the non-tolled bridges,” he says. Veldhuis states that we misinterpret his article if we take from it any implied dismissal of the value of census data. “The whole flow of that piece is about the intrusiveness of the questions, that was the reason from the title on down, that was the purpose of the piece,” Veldhuis says. “It’s not to say that those questions shouldn’t be asked of Canadians. They just shouldn’t be forced to disclose them.” Nevertheless, Veldhuis reiterates the article’s suggestion that government should instead be lifting and gathering data from people’s income tax forms, passport applications, driver’s licence usage, etc—information which is, of course, also forced from people by law. And that may be the real story.

In recent years, many western governments have been reducing census activities, and moving towards what National Statistics Council chair Ian McKinnon described to a parliamentary committee as “population registers linked to extensive administrative databases.” Essentially, governments are becoming less keen on data like Statscan’s that’s openly gathered and shared with the public, and increasingly interested in citizen identity cards, integrated government databases, and surreptitiously collecting information about us all which they can share in carefully packaged doses or with only their own strategic partners. Simultaneously, independent researchers, businesses, non-profits, opposition parties, journalists and others who may not toe government party lines are deprived of their main weapons of argument—independent, reliable statistical facts. 

So read that Growing Prosperity report like a requiem for shared community understanding. It’s a Fox News truthiness world the Conservatives are ushering us into, where all new facts will soon be based on feeling-truthiness. If you don’t believe that, good luck getting the stats to prove me wrong. 

Rob Wipond discloses that he has a vested interest in being able to obtain good statistics. Send them to rob (at)robwipond.com. Growing Prosperity in the Capital Region is at www.communitycouncil.ca/resources/all_reports.html