When Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced plans in 2010 to make the government’s primary source of household data into a voluntary survey, researchers across Canada warned of dire consequences for the survey’s reliability. Those predictions have largely come true: In 2006, nearly 94 percent of Canadian households that received the survey responded to it. In 2011, the response rate fell below 70 percent. As a result, Statistics Canada, the country’s statistical agency, decided not to release detailed data on Snow Lake, Manitoba and more than 1,000 other communities, and researchers have called into question the validity of the data on other areas that was released.
Canada’s experience with a voluntary household survey is now drawing attention in the United States. Republican lawmakers led by Texas Congressman Ted Poe are pushing to make a similar change to the American Community Survey — a similar, annual questionnaire that aims to measure national trends in dozens of areas such as education, housing, fertility and employment by surveying more than 3 million Americans each year. Both Poe and his Canadian counterparts consider the surveys an invasion of privacy, but researchers on both sides of the border say the Canadian experiment is a harsh lesson in what can happen when a country loses its commitment to collecting accurate information about its residents.
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