4 things the return of the census will tell us about Hamilton

The controversial scrapping of the long-form census was reversed by the Liberal government Thursday, and that move is going to shed some light on Hamilton.

The census is back. How will it help us better understand a changing city?

How will the return of the long-form census affect Hamilton? Two experts weigh in. (CBC)

The controversial scrapping of the long-form census was reversed by the Liberal government Thursday, and that move is going to help shed some light on changes that have been happening in Hamilton.

Bringing back mandatory surveys will give governments and researchers a better understanding of demographic statistics, but what kinds of numbers will be revealed, and how will that differ from numbers collected in the National Household Survey (NHS)? How will that understanding affect public policy?

CBC Hamilton talked to Sara Mayo, a social planner with the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton (SPRC), and Arthur Sweetman, an economics professor with McMaster University, to get more insight on how the survey will affect the Steel City.

Here are four things that will be revealed about Hamilton with the reintroduction of the long-form census:

1. Better Economic Picture of Hamilton

A result of the National Household Survey was a lack of response from both ends of the financial spectrum, said Mayo. A study done between 2006 and 2011 showed that 21 per cent fewer Canadian millionaires were filling out the NHS compared to the census, a drop that far exceeded the middle class. Mayo said that Hamilton's millionaires were not unique to the rest of Canada, and by reintroducing the mandatory census, we will have a better idea of Hamilton's wealth distribution.

The same can be said for poorer areas and individuals in Hamilton. Sweetman said that making the survey voluntary caused both ends of the spectrum to be underreported, and reports from the SPRC back up that statement. As many as 17 neighbourhoods in Hamilton had no viable data to show as a result of the NHS. Those included:​

  • Lower city: Keith, Landsdale, Crownpoint West, St. Clair, parts of Central, Beasley, Stipley, Crownpoint East Homeside, including parts of Jamesville, Sherman and Crown Point Hubs
  • Mountain neighbourhoods: Bonnington, St. Joseph Hospital site on West 5th
  • Rural Ancaster
  • Binbrook

2. More accurate stats on ethnic communities

Both Mayo and Sweetman said that underreporting on ethnicity was another issue with the NHS. Much like the wealthy and impoverished, new immigrants and those with English as a second language were largely unrepresented in the NHS statistics because they didn't fill out the voluntary survey. Many of those people overlap with the underreported neighbourhoods listed above.

Because those neighbourhoods weren't filling out surveys, Hamilton's demographics would not be represented accurately in the NHS reports, said Mayo. Since 2006, the picture of Hamilton's cultural mosaic has been somewhat blurry.

3. Demographic Mysteries Revealed

It's not just underrepresented demographics, but underrepresented fluctuations in demographics.

With the changing of the long-form census to the NHS, social planners were hesitant to compare NHS data with previous statistics, Mayo said. Experts didn't know if it was fair to compare pre- and post-2006 data, especially if there were significant drop offs between the two surveys. 

Poverty numbers changed significantly between the long-form census and the NHS, she said, but as the previous points mention, organizations were unsure if that drop off was because of the voluntary nature of the NHS. They had that same hesitancy when looking at Hamilton's Chinese minority backgrounds.

"One of the things that we found (between 2006 and now), for the first time in Hamilton's history, there was a decline in the number of people who identified from a visible minority from a Chinese background. The big question now is was this data a data quality issue, or was it a real decline? With the NHS, it was complete uncertainty," she said.

4. Improved Decision Making

With the reintroduction of the long-form census comes, simply, more data, said Mayo. Hamilton will have a better understanding of the people in the city, so organizations will be less hesitant to make important decisions.

"I think it'll be a really important change that will allow us to better respond to emerging challenges," she said.

Measures of wealth, poverty and unemployement, immigration and many other demographic specifics will be more accurate given larger sample sizes, she continued. The larger the sample size, the more certain organizations will be in the numbers.

"For Hamilton, poverty and immigration issues are ... key issues where a return to the census long form might tell us things that cannot be seen in the voluntary National Household Survey," said Sweetman.

"Being able to see neighbourhoods also helps in planning for the city, school boards and the like."