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The Canadian Census Matters (Really)

“Those communities are invisible, as far as the census is concerned.”

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When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party swept into power last month, it faced a number of pressing issues: a slowing economy, a refugee crisis, a controversial trade deal. But just weeks after winning, the new majority announced something that might have struck observers as fairly minor: the mandatory long-form census is coming back.1 It may seem like an unlikely cause, but the census has been a flashpoint since Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in 2010 that the longer form would no longer be required.2

On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman recounts the harrowing journey of the Canadian long-form census and explains why the way governments collect information matters so much. Census data isn’t just used to create cool maps and charts — it’s at the heart of decisions about infrastructure funding, government services, electoral districts, and all sorts of matters that affect both the public and private sectors.

To listen, stream or download the full episode above, and find a partial transcript and video below.

Also this week, a Significant Digit about office snacks and U.S. productivity.


What’s census data good for, anyway?

Ben Casselman: Census data gets used in all sorts of practical ways. It gets used at the federal level down to the local level to determine how to allocate resources, how to target programs, to evaluate programs, and to figure out where the communities of need are. Planning studies use census data to find out how many cars go through an intersection and if they need a traffic light, or more parking or housing. It gets used by the private sector. Businesses use it to identify business opportunities, to identify potential customers and where they are headed.

Jody Avirgan: [Since Canada eliminated the more detailed census form] are there examples of tangible services that were lost because of the loss of this information?

Casselman: I think what we expected to see was that there could be longer-term erosion, assuming that this policy had remained in place. One of the fundamental challenges here is that we don’t know what we don’t know. We use the household survey data, make the best assumptions we can make, fill in the gaps, and hope that we did a good job of that. One of the core purposes of a national census is that it ends up being a benchmark against which we can judge all of the other smaller surveys, both public and private sector. And those are used in all sorts of different ways.


Slipping through the survey cracks.


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What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Footnotes

  1. As Ben Casselman wrote in August, “The full census collects only very limited information such as age, sex and marital status. Until 2011, Canada supplemented that data with a broader, mandatory survey that was known as the long-form census and was sent to roughly 1 in 5 households along with the standard census form.”

  2. Harper and other census critics had privacy concerns about some of the questions included on the form. In the United States, there have been various efforts to cut the census budget because of cost concerns.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.

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