Making it easier to ignore the poor

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We hear a great deal about the lives of the rich, much of it sympathetic and often fawning.

Even Conrad Black, despite his history of anti-Canadian outbursts, is treated almost fondly by commentators who generally have a hard-hearted, tough-on-crime attitude toward less well-heeled felons.

The poor rarely get such sympathetic attention; indeed they rarely get much attention at all. And they're soon to get even less.

That is the real reason for the Harper government's decision to scrap the long-form census matters, and why the debate over it is more than a bizarre obsession with statistics in this overheated summer.

As a number of experts have noted, the decision to replace the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary abbreviated survey will result in less reliable data collection, particularly from the poor and marginalized.

So, as income becomes ever more concentrated at the top, as it has in recent years, we'll know less and less about those at the bottom, making them easier to ignore.

Sam Boshra, a former analyst for Statistics Canada, puts it this way: "If this results in the poor and unemployed being undercounted, the government could justify reallocating resources away from programs targeting these disadvantaged groups."

Boshra notes that the long-form data is the basis for just about all of Statistics Canada's important social measurements. The unemployment rate, for instance, is compiled from the monthly Labour Force Survey, but the sample used in that survey is based on the census data. Once the census data becomes voluntary, the unemployment rate will be considered less reliable, taking the heat off governments in times of rising unemployment.

All this could enable the Harper government to put in place neo-conservative policies without suffering a backlash from Canadians.

Neo-conservative economic policies -- notably, tax cuts for the rich, austerity for the rest -- are intuitively unappealing to most Canadians, who tend to believe in fairness, social inclusion and equal opportunity.

But if Canadians are unaware of the extent of poverty, they won't be concerned about policies that fail to address the problem. Indeed, they'll be under the impression the problem is being addressed.

This wouldn't be the first time the right has attempted to make the poor invisible.

Since the 1990s, the ultra-right Fraser Institute has tried to discredit the way Statistics Canada calculates poverty, based on a measure relative to the rest of the population.

The Fraser Institute favours a measure based on minimal subsistence. Under this approach, children are considered not to live in poverty as long as they have food and shelter, even if they lack things most Canadians consider basic -- like books, toys, school supplies.

Using the Fraser poverty calculation, vast swaths of Canada's poor simply disappear, reclassified as middle class -- even as children fall behind at school because their parents can't pay for field trips or calculators.

Of course, the Harper government insists it's simply responding to public complaints that the census violates privacy. In fact, there have been lots of complaints about the census -- but they're mostly related to the 2003 decision to contract out census collection to Lockheed Martin. That provoked widespread concerns that the U.S. military contractor might pass data on Canadians to U.S. government agencies.

In debates over public policy, the rich tend to dominate, while the poor are barely heard.

The long-form census is one of the few lifelines the poor have to let us know they're out there. Removing it will make it all the easier for Harper to ignore the muffled cries of those who can't even buy their kids toys or school supplies.


Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet.


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