What the census means for the anti-poverty community

05-17-16

The much anticipated arrival of the return of the long-form census has been greeted with such excitement and enthusiasm across Canada that the StatsCan website crashed because of the sheer number of responses.

The long form census is vital to many organizations and groups across Canada, particularly those in the poverty elimination field as it provides high quality data that few other sources can provide. It can give us a look into the quality and quantity of affordable housing, access to childcare and employment, (ie. how many jobs are people working? do have access to paid time off? )

Essential to this high quality data is the overall return rate of the census. The replacement for the long form census, the National Household Survey (NHS) only saw a 68% response rate versus the previous mandatory census which saw a response rate of 98%. The quality of the NHS was so poor that many critics felt the survey was essentially useless because the data could not be compared to previous years.

The most concerning aspect of the previous census was that the voluntary NHS did not receive nearly as many responses from marginalized groups, including people in poverty and visible minorities. The under reporting lead to skewed data on poverty because of inaccuracies in the data, while in some cases poverty could not even be measured because the data was so problematic.

This trend may continue moving forward as the newest census no longer asks questions about income.  Instead the government has opted to use information from the Canada Revenue Agency for a variety of reasons, raising a concern that information gathered will not be accurate enough for the most basic of poverty measurements.  Advocates in Manitoba hope that some form of assistance will be provided by the government to people living in low income so as to ensure their information is accurately collected and included in the findings of the census.  They point to a lack of access to the internet and challenges around language as barriers that may keep some people in poverty from completing the form.

So why is the census so important?

The census offers reliable data to policymakers and members of civil society to be able to better craft policy and understand the effects their work has on specific populations.

The census allows for a better understanding of how a neighbourhood changes over time and where investments in services need to be made, like drop in-clinics, transit services and the condition of housing. This is valuable information to ensure the government and non-profit services are then able to effectively and efficiently deliver services to those most in need.

What does the return of the long form census mean for CWP?

Data that the long form census gathers is vital to CWP’s work. When we are writing our annual Poverty Progress Profiles we look to statistical reporting from the provinces and territories to see how their anti-poverty strategies are progressing. Provinces and territories use the information from the census to establish benchmarks on a wide variety of poverty indicators including education, employment, health care, etc. While the census does not allow for reporting on income (which is the most basic of measurements of poverty) it can still provide these important indicators.

We use the census data when compiling submissions for UN committees. The data can give us a quantifiable look at the quality of life for many marginalized communities, including aboriginal and first nation communities. It can provide us with a snapshot of the quality of housing people are currently living in and point towards red flags such as overcrowding or the number of housing that is in disrepair.

For our online economic and social rights course, it enables us to show participants in concrete terms how poverty impacts Canada on a variety of issues like income mobility, housing, food security and access to proper medical care.  With this data we are able to demonstrate how we need to look at poverty from a holistic approach as opposed to trying to find a silver bullet to ending poverty.

Ultimately CWP is small organization with limited resources, the census gives us access to extensive information that no other source can provide. This isn’t to say that the census is without fault, thinking of the lack of income data. Nonetheless, the return of the mandatory long-form census is a step in the right direction.  Bring on the data!

James Armbruster is the Development and Communications Coordinator at Canada Without Poverty

CWP’s Megan Hooft spoke with Vice News about the return of the long-form census. To see what she had to say, click here.

Canada Without Poverty is a non-partisan, not-for-profit, charitable organization dedicated to the elimination of poverty in Canada. CWP is here because of your support. We would not be able to continue our work in eliminating poverty without your help. Please consider making a donation to CWP to support our work in ending poverty for everyone in Canada.