O, Canada! More Lessons From North of the Border

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

In my last post, I looked to our northern neighbor to see what lessons we might learn from Canada’s experience with a first-ever voluntary household survey to gather socio-economic data on all communities — data that are used, directly or indirectly, to guide much of public and private sector decision-making. The National Household Survey replaced the mandatory census “long form” after conservative leaders balked at the perceived invasion of privacy and governmental overreach. The result: Increased burden on the public (due to a larger sample size to compensate for falling response rates), increased costs, and no reliable data for a quarter of the country’s localities. This is not an outcome I’d wish upon our venerable democracy.

Canada also takes a census of population, with mandatory response, every five years. In 2011, Canadians answered 10 census questions, compared to the six Americans answered in the 2010 enumeration. Canada first offered the option of answering the census online in 2006; almost a fifth of Canadians did so, leading Statistics Canada (StatCan) to nudge 60 percent of households, via advance letter, to respond on the Internet in 2011. The remaining households received paper questionnaires in the mail or by hand (enumerator drop-off), similar to modified methods used here in rural and remote areas.

Internet response is a money-saver; there’s no scanning and data capture required, as StatCan points out on its website, and there are fewer missing (item non-response) or erroneous answers (yes, some people put down an age and birth date that don’t match, for example!). The U.S. Census Bureau is following suit, using the ongoing American Community Survey (ACS) as a rolling test-bed for Internet response in the 2020 Census. Half of households in the monthly ACS sample (the option became available in January) are ditching the paper form and submitting information online. A promising start, for sure, but the jury is still out on savings ($4 – $5 million a year, the bureau estimates), as more people call the telephone assistance lines for help. And electronic filing of census forms is not a silver bullet. People in low-income households and rural areas are less likely to have broadband access, and there are phishing scams and other data security issues to address. (I received two emails last week purporting to come from a census.gov address. Can’t fool me, but how many others might easily be scammed?)

In 2006, StatCan introduced another operational upgrade to decrease public burden: It asked people for permission to access their tax files for relevant information. Using administrative records is a key part of potential reforms for the U.S. census in 2020, but extensive research is required to overcome considerable hurdles, such as laws that prohibit sharing of personal information between agencies, the need to put people at a physical address (you can’t live in a post office box or with parents who claim you on their tax form if you’re in college), and missing demographic information such as race, age and gender in many databases. And we need to understand how Americans will view this sort of data-sharing — as a smart use of existing information or an example of big brother run amok?

My point here is that there are promising reforms for the 2020 Census, but the Census Bureau needs time and money to vet new methods thoroughly. Congress wants the next count to cost less — a lot less! — yet it is reluctant to invest adequate funds in research, testing and operational development now, so the Census Bureau can realize the significant (billions of dollars!) savings these new techniques will yield down the road, when the bureau starts the enumeration.

President Obama proposed a $983 million budget for the Census Bureau in fiscal year 2014, a small increase over his request for 2013. $245 million of that amount is for 2020 Census planning; another $242 million pays for the ACS, a vital factor in cost-effective 2020 testing. But sequestration and budget cuts set the agency back 11 percent this year, making the funding leap from one year to the next much larger than it should be. Congress needs to get its mind around the concept of ramping up for this uniquely cyclical federal undertaking soon, if it truly wants to see fundamental changes in the way we conduct this nation’s largest peacetime activity and still ensure an accurate count.