Maytree Opinion, July 2012
By Alan Broadbent
Many Canadians have been puzzled as their federal government has been eliminating valuable sources of data and information. The elimination of the Statistics Canada long form census in 2010 has been followed by continuing cuts or reductions to reports. In the spring 2012 budget, the budget of the National Council of Welfare (NCW) was eviscerated, essentially shutting down the organization.
The NCW produced two important reports, Welfare Incomes and Poverty Profile. These reports were developed 25 years ago at the Council, and have become essential to policy makers and researchers trying to understand poverty in Canada.
Other recent cuts have included the Participation and Activity Limitation Survey, critical to the design of programs and policies for Canadians living with disabilities. Social Security Statistics: Canada and Provinces, an excellent compendium of data from all levels of government, has been eliminated. So has the Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics, more essential information for tuning policy and programs to current conditions.
Eliminating these sources of information is troubling for anyone interested in public policy and programs that work in the real world. Without them, policy making is being done in the dark. This is not only inefficient, but will undoubtedly end up being more costly. Worse, it may end up with many vulnerable Canadians slipping backwards in their capacity to contribute to society and live their lives with dignity.
When word came that the NCW budget had disappeared, I consulted with Caledon President Ken Battle, who was deeply concerned. He felt that action needed to be taken to save as many of these data sources as possible. Along with Caledon vice president Sherri Torjman, he had already begun to see what could be done.
Fortunately, Ken and Sherri are intimately knowledgeable about both reports, as they started them 25 years ago when Ken was president of the NCW, and Sherri was a key consultant. They not only designed the original reports, but set up the cooperation with the provinces for the contribution of data. They are keenly aware of the essential importance of the two reports in understanding poverty in Canada, and for the design of effective instruments to help low income and marginalized Canadians.
Caledon will combine Welfare Incomes and Poverty Profile into a new Caledon publication, the Canada Social Report. It will also look to other discontinued or interrupted reports to see if they can also be rescued, which will depend on the availability of the component data streams. Details of this are on the Caledon site in a document titled Saving Welfare Incomes and Poverty Profile.
This is good news for Canada, as it forestalls the dumbing-down of policy formation. But it comes at a cost.
First there is the financial cost of assuming this work, and we will be working at Caledon to build a funding consortium to sustain this work. We will welcome contributions from others who see the importance of this data in their work.
But there is also a cost to the public realm by forcing this important national task into private hands. Caledon has built a reputation for high quality work that is faithful to the facts and dedicated to building a stronger country. But it is still a private organization, and in my opinion and that of my colleagues at Caledon and Maytree, the public interest is best served by a robust public enterprise in understanding real conditions in real time in Canada. A strong public capacity to collect and analyze data and information is critical to that end.
Statistics Canada is recognized around the world as a high quality organization with a devotion to accuracy and integrity. Other public service organizations like the NCW have earned respect for their accuracy and integrity, in good part because they’ve leveraged off Statistics Canada data bases. On the other hand there are other private organizations in Canada and other countries who collect and report data that only supports their particular interests, and the public interest should never have to be reliant on such sources of data and information.
Hats off to Caledon for responsibly stepping into the breach. It is unfortunate that a breach opened up, and seems to be widening.