The US already did it. It’s evil.

This month’s conservative conspiracy features the scrapping of the mandatory filling out of the long form census, to be replaced by an entirely voluntary filling out of same–my personal second choice, only to getting rid of the census entirely in all forms. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a conservative conspiracy without various media outlets and statistics organizations–most of which probably have their own methods for obtaining exactly the same information–calling it one. So what makes this a conservative conspiracy? the US already did it. And many of the reasons for the decision to at least give it a try? Yep, much the same as the anti-census reasons up here–mostly to do with privacy, etc. And the result?

Statistics Canada has said it can’t quite predict what the impact on the data will be, but the United States experiment might be instructive.

When a percentage of Americans were given the choice of filling out the national survey, the mail-back response rate dropped by a third.

And as some in Canada have warned about the impact on the long census, the response rates among certain groups became too low for reliable information. For example, the proportion of completed surveys dropped to about 20 per cent for blacks and Hispanics.

If folks are given a choice whether or not to fill out a government survey, they might actually decide not to–particularly if the offending survey asks questions that both they already have the answer to and aren’t really any of their business even if they didn’t. Who knew? And of course, because it was tried and they didn’t get a result they liked in the US, and they had the nerve to do so while George Bush was still in office, it gets branded a US/Canadian conservative conspiracy. Now, admittedly, I have absolutely no idea how information collection works in the US, but being as I go through at least the minimum every year, I’m quite familiar with how it works in Canada–or, at least, how it works for someone in my current position.

  • Your current location for purposes of demographics is registered on just about every piece of municipal, provincial and federal paperwork you’ve ever in your life had to fill out.
  • Your aboriginal status, where applicable, is registered–if you so choose–when you file your income taxes.
  • That status is additionally registered if you choose to apply for your aboriginal status card.
  • Your disability, if any, is registered–also at your choosing–when you file your income taxes.
  • Additionally, at least in Ontario, you are registered as having a disability if you apply for and are accepted into the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).
  • In either case re: disability, medical proof must be documented with the overseeing government body before the appropriate forms–be they income tax or ODSP application–are signed off on by the ones doing the processing (I had a personal run-in with this catch a couple years ago).
  • The government, through the Canada Revenue Agency, can usually–unless you’re doing something to try and sneak a little more money into your bank account and a little less into the government’s–get a pretty decent handle on your employment history, income history, duration of employment, how long you spent on employment insurance, how long you spent on any disability pensions/social assistance/welfare programs, how long you spent not doing much of anything (technically, even if your income is 0 you should still be filing taxes).
  • Your race/ethnicity is also registered upon the issuing of a birth certificate, and presumedly when you’re filling out paperwork for immigrating to Canada, though considering the government is now looking at reviewing its hiring practices probably after this incident (Look out; it’s another conservative conspiracy!) involving someone being denied the chance to apply due to not being aboriginal or a member of a visible minority, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that’s probably not going to be quite as relevant.

Okay, so all that aside, why a volunteer long census? Or, because I’d prefer this option, why scrap the census entirely? The answer to both questions is really pretty close to the same, and is actually two-fold. The first and, for me, most important answer is we’re simply not all willing to cough up information many people consider to be personal/private information–yes, even if in most cases the government escentially already has that information. Attached to that is, as mentioned above–although I can’t speak for anyone else, from my perspective I don’t see the need in repeatedly handing over the same information to which the government already has access through one department or another. The second answer is a little more simple than that–some of the questions asked really don’t make a whole lot of sense, anyway. What difference is it to the government how many bedrooms there are in the house? And who’s definition of ‘bedroom’ are we using–just because the house is built as a three-bedroom doesn’t actually mean they’re all being used as bedrooms. Are they considering a special subsidy for families with 4 people and only 2 bedrooms?

Let’s take the discussion a step further, and let’s assume the Harper government had moved instead to discard the census entirely, not unlike the current European trend. Would the same groups be up in arms demanding the decision be reversed? Even if, for instance, they’d taken a page out of Britain’s–or even Sweden’s playbook instead?

Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark all use registry-based systems to track citizens from birth to death.

While the Scandinavian countries use central registries and periodic surveys to collect data on the population, Britain is looking at cancelling its census outright after the next survey in 2011.

Britain has taken a census every 10 years since 1801 with an exception for 1941 during the Second World War. The decision in Britain is partly driven by budgetary concerns but also due to concerns over accuracy.

Rather than a national headcount, Britain is looking for ways to gather data from existing public and private databases.

Would the various organizations supposedly dependant on statistics revealed by the census be just as up in arms about an outright cancelation of the census, whether or not it was replaced with the approach taken in either Sweden or Britain? Why, or why not? If privacy was a concern, then I could see bringing in a system as detailed as that used in Norway posing an issue. But, were the census to hit the pavement next year and a system not unlike that proposed by Britain–gaining access to the exact same data, or close to it, from other public and private facilities–put in place instead, would there be this much opposition to it? What’s the difference, really?

While admittedly, I’d personally love to see an outright cancelation of the census, realisticly that’s not about to happen. Instead, I’m happy with the census–at least the long form–being made voluntary. If you don’t have a problem with filling it out, then by all means do so. I don’t have a problem with you filling it out either. But all 3 levels of government already demand I hand over most of this information to them in one or another way, shape or form. And I do so, with no argument whatsoever. The government should then not have the authority to 1: force me to provide, yet again, all the same information and then some to which they already have all the access they could possibly want/need, and 2: put me in jail for declining to provide the government with information to which they already have all the access they could possibly want/need. And if that means making the long form census voluntary, then yes, let’s have a voluntary long form. If the ideal number of people end up not filling it out, then let’s look for alternative sources for that information–the public and private sector both have plenty. And for crying out loud, let’s try and stop comparing everything that goes on up here to what went on, or is going on, in the US. That tactic hasn’t really worked since the 2006 election.


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