The Canadian census goes libertarian, and the results are lacking

The homeland of Second City TV's Bob and Doug McKenzie has taken a more laidback approach to data collection.

CityLab’s Aarian Marshall reports on the vast emptiness of demographic data in Canada, thanks to a 2011 change making it voluntary to answer long-form census questionnaires. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper, citing privacy concerns, said it was no longer mandatory to answer the 40-page National Household Survey (NHS), which is sent to one in three households. (Other households get a shorter form asking only for age, marital status, and languages spoken.) Marshall writes, “In 2006, 93.5 percent of Canadians responded to the then-mandatory long-form census. In 2011, 68.6 percent returned the NHS.”

Because of the low response rate, many policymakers—and entrepreneurs, such as real estate developers—find the new data to be useless. But Harper and his allies seem unlikely to reverse the decision, as more accurate data about poverty, housing conditions, educational attainment, and the like can be used to argue for more social welfare spending. (“‘If you measure it, it matters’ is the motto of those net tax-receiving organizations who only matter if they can make their case,” wrote the National Post’s Stephen Taylor in arguing for the voluntary form in 2010.)


“Because of the move to the voluntary NHS, Canada is a richer, whiter, more educated country now,” jokes economist Ryan Berlin in the CityLab article. That’s because response rates for the voluntary form are especially weak among low-income individuals and those whose first language is not English.

The census change sounds similar to the push for voting restrictions in the U.S.—the idea being that the government has no inherent interest in full participation, especially from citizens who might ask the government to do something. In fact, there have been proposals to make the U.S. Census voluntary. Former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann claimed it was unconstitutional for the government to ask anything more than the number of people in a household (Politifact disagreed.) In 2013, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a probable Republican presidential candidate, filed a bill making our Census Bureau’s “long form” (called the American Community Survey, which has about 70 questions and is sent to only a few million citizens) voluntary. Paul’s press release indignantly noted that the form “includes questions about mental disabilities in your home, personal financial information, whether you have a toilet and what time you leave for and return from work each day.”

Paul seems to think that going without a toilet is a matter of personal freedom, as opposed to an indicator of poverty or substandard housing. By the same reasoning, if your commute gets longer every year because of more traffic, it’s your business, and highway planners don’t need to know anything about it.

The Census doesn’t come up much in presidential campaigns, but I wonder if Paul or any of the other candidates will push the Canadian model in 2016. Less informed voters may not grasp that such a change, which a Republican Congress could very well pass, could be as important as Supreme Court nominations. But if the GOP succeeds in vilifying the Census Bureau as a form of sinister, heavy-handed government—though it’s already forbidden from sharing data that would identify respondents of the survey—will Hillary Clinton try to triangulate the issue by cutting the number of questions in half?

McMansions make miracle recovery

Among so many other things, the Census Bureau is nosy about how much space you have for your stuff, and it reports that new American houses are bigger than ever. The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham sorts out the data: “After a few years of shrinkage in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the median square footage of newly-built homes last year tipped the scales at over 2,400 square feet. That’s nearly 1,000 square feet larger than the median home built in 1992. The death of the McMansion has been greatly exaggerated.”

This rebound is surprising, given that younger Americans seem to prefer smaller homes in walkable neighborhoods. In fact, the homeownership rate has been steadily falling for the past decade. It peaked in 2004, when 69.2 percent of households owned their homes; by the end of 2014, that was down to 64.0 percent, as younger Americans stayed in apartments longer. Ingraham notes a 2012 political science paper that found builders and construction firms to be among the most conservative businesses in the country (based on which campaigns they contributed to), and “homebuilders may be inclined to build communities that reflect their own values.” According to a Pew Research Survey, conservatives prefer places where “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away.”

Whatever the reason, it bears watching whether single-family homes continue to get bigger and bigger even as fewer families are able to afford homes at all. In addition to income inequality and the shrinking of the middle class, will we soon be fretting about the disappearance of starter homes?

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