The Big Count

1996, New Zealanders will stand up and be counted

Listener: 18 March, 1996

Keywords: Social Policy; Statistics;

One of the many cheerful characters in Sesame Street is The Count, who “loves to count”. It is important that young children know their numbers, because counting – at a more sophisticated level – is important to adults. Fortunately there are real life equivalents of The Count. They are called statisticians, many of whom work for Statistics New Zealand. At the moment these Counts are girding up for the Big Count, the five yearly population census, whose questionnaires go into our houses in just twelve months time.

The first census was in 1858. According to my count the 26th census will be on the night of Tuesday 26 of March 1996. Altogether there will be over 3.5 million personal schedules, and another 1.2 million dwelling schedules. Individual responses are treated with the utmost confidentiality, but the aggregates will begin being published within a month, and most of the key data will be available by the end of 1996. Providing confidentiality is not breached, researchers can have special tabulations.

Most of the questions are standard ones, repeated from past censuses, so we counters can keep a track of the changes over time. But in recent years the Statistics Department has gone through a consultative process to identify community priorities. The proposals were carefully sifted, analysed for feasibility, and checked that the data cannot be better obtained from another source. In keeping with the open consultation, the specific conclusions of the Department were published, and another round of comments invited. Each census eliminates some past questions, and introduces some new ones.

This year there as been some anguish from the disabled over whether there will be a question in the 1996 Census on the disability. Like many pressure groups they are aware that not being counted can create an invisibility to the public (as when we ignore the unpaid economic activity in households). They reason that a question in the census would raise their public profile, and also enable better public policy on the disabled to be made. Nevertheless, despite the importance of the issue, there may be no disability question into the 1996 Census.

The basic reason is the responses are likely to be inaccurate. Overseas experience suggests that the question does not give useful results. People who are not disabled say they are, some of the disabled say they are not, an inevitable problem of a questionnaire based on the individuals’ self-categorization.

The question has to be complex to capture categories of disability. A pilot study for a question in the 1981 census found the information elicited was unreliable. This is not surprising given the complexity question involved. For instance am I disabled because I wear glasses? Would I be disabled if I had a hearing aid? (Disability can include mental affliction. What if I were number-blind, and had trouble counting – or word-blind and could not understand the question being posed?) We can joke about such things but the verbal ambiguities upon which the humour depends are difficult to deal with in a simple question for which answers involve self-categorization. The pilot question’s definition involved over 100 words, and still left ambiguities.

The Canadians have an ingenious of solution. They put a simple question in their Census, which is used to construct a sample frame for a proper disability survey with far more detailed questions administered by professional interviewers. The Counts at Statistics New Zealand would like to do the same. But at the moment there is no funding for the second stage survey, with the valuable an accurate information.

Why not just do the first stage? The Counts are adamant that the data would be so unreliable as to make the exercise worthless. Sure, people could tote around any figures from the census, but they would be spurious.

Why is there no funding for a proper disability survey? That question might be asked of government agencies – such as Accident Compensation, Health, Social Welfare, Treasury – who seem happy to make dataless policy decisions about the disabled.

Unfortunately some people, dissatisfied with this possible outcome of there being no disability survey, advocate boycotting the census, refusing to fill in their forms. As well as breaking the law, it would be a very stupid thing to do, because it could reduce the quality of our information about the disabled.

Suppose later there is a survey. To work properly it needs a good quality base against which to reference. Although the population census is not the actual sample frame, the results from any survey are checked against the census data. It is even possible to improve the precision of the sample results by this cross check. So if a boycott of the census by the disabled were successful, the quality of the survey statistics could be compromised. Typically there would be an underestimate of the numbers of the disabled, and could reduce their significance for public policy purposes. The miscount from a boycott of the Big Count would be an own goal.