Scrapping mandatory census ‘mindless,’ government warned

OttawaCitizen.com – Technology
August 26, 2010.   By Margaret Munro, Postmedia News

Canada will pay a huge price for the Harper government’s “short-sighted” decision to scrap the mandatory census, say leading U.S. statisticians.

“This decision will lower the quality and raise the cost of information on nearly every issue before Canada’s government,” Stephen Fienberg at Carnegie Mellon University and Kenneth Prewitt at Columbia University say today in the journal Nature.

Fienberg elaborated in a telephone interview from Pittsburgh, saying the decision makes little sense and the added costs will be enormous.

“It’s just mindless,” he says, predicting that government will end up spending “billions” replacing the mandatory long-form census that was sent to 20 per cent of the population with the voluntary survey to be sent to 33 per cent.

Industry Minister Tony Clement created a furore when he announced in June the plan to scrap the mandatory long-form census, which collects data on ethnicity, language, income, housing and disability, and replace it with a voluntary survey in 2011. Critics say the voluntary survey will produce a skewed and useless national demographic picture. The government says it made the change to strike a balance between the need for information and privacy.

The government decision is also “enormously destructive” to the morale at Statistics Canada, which has long been “one of — if not the best — statistical agencies in the world,” says Fienberg, who grew up in Toronto and is a former vice-president of York University. Prewitt is a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau.

They are also staunch defenders of census data and agencies that are under assault in many countries.

“Government statistics are no less vital to a nation’s scientific infrastructure than is an observatory or particle accelerator, and need stable funding and protection,” they write in Nature under the headline ‘Save your census’.

Detailed, reliable data is needed for everything from determining how many hospitals are needed, to tracking how poverty and prosperity relate to health or education, they say: “Census data provide the gold standard against which all other studies on such issues can be corrected and judged.

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