Reboot Statscan

Statscan needs to update its operating system and reboot.

They now operate on a paper system in which only 40 per cent of surveys on spending habits are returned. Those that are returned are sometimes incomplete. Respondents sometime forget to include digital purchases such as orders from Amazon, Netflix and Uber.

Return of surveys is critical in determining strategies like benchmark interest rates which are used to calculate Old Age Security and child tax benefits. Spending habits also helps policy-makers. If Canadians are spending a large amount on drugs, for example, governments could decide to create better drug coverage.

Statscan wants to modernize the way in which they collect data through digital records held by banks. In the light of privacy breaches of Facebook and other accounts, Canadians are understandably nervous.

However, Statscan doesn’t want data that we don’t already share with banks. And unlike bank information, the data will be stripped of personal information such as your name, social insurance number, address and postal code.

We should worry more about the personal data that private companies collect. Economics reporter Barrie McKenna says:

“If you’re seriously concerned about letting others see your financial records, shopping habits and internet surfing behaviour, well, that horse left the barn a long time ago.

Just think for a minute what companies such as Toronto-Dominion Bank, Bell, Facebook, Google, Amazon or the operator of the Highway 407 toll road already know about what you did today, or in the past month. Stitch it all together, and it’s your life in bits and bytes (Globe and Mail, November 4, 2018).”

This hasn’t stopped the federal Conservatives from trying to make hay from Statscan’s plan. They have labelled it “Big Brother on steroids” and an “Orwellian intrusion into the lives of Canadians.”

Politicization of the gathering of statistics undermines the vital role Statscan plays.

There is nothing Orwellian about it and data is secure. Former assistant chief statistician at Statscan, Michael Wolfson, says:

“Under the legislation, neither the courts, the RCMP, Canada Revenue Agency nor Canadian Security Intelligence Service can access the data. Internally, Statscan has designed its computer systems with all kinds of safeguards, and it is a criminal offence to use the data for any purpose other than statistics.”

The mistake that Statscan made was to assume too much. Canadians need to be consulted about the modernization of data collection that Statscan proposes. The lobby group Openmedia is critical:

“Under our current laws, many important elements that could protect our privacy while still allowing StatCan to carry out its critical work are not in place. This includes transparency – notifying us – and meaningful consent.”

There’s a trade-off of my privacy and what I get in return. I regularly reveal details of my private life every time I use an ATM for cash, log on to Facebook to connect with friends, and buy stuff from Amazon. It’s an exchange that I accept.

All the more reason to reveal my spending habits for the public good: I want my data to be used for something other than trying to sell me something.

Annual income by stealth

If a guaranteed annual income is such a good idea, why hasn’t it happened yet? It’s supported by both the right and left ends of the political spectrum. The right-wing likes it because it reduces government bureaucracy by combining a number of programs into one. The left-wing supports it because, unlike the trickle-down theory, it really does lift all boats.

tax

My own opinions have ranged from elation to despair. In my column for the Kamloops Daily News in 2000, I wrote glowingly of it. This year, I titled my column “Why an annual income won’t work” and some readers thought I was being too negative.

Sixteen years after the first column, I now think it’s a good idea poorly marketed. If Canadians can’t buy the idea because it suggests money for nothing, then it should be sold as an income-tax-implemented annual income, ITIAN (my acronym).

Andrew Jackson, professor at Carlton University and advisor to the Broadbent Institute, also likes ITIAN but acknowledges past failures:

“This could be an important step forward, but incremental reform toward an income-tested guarantee for working-age Canadians delivered through the tax system will be the best path as opposed to more visionary ‘big bang’ solutions.”

Instead of a big bang annual income, apply it incrementally by stealth –through the income tax system.

Remind Canadians that seniors already have an annual income in the form of the Guaranteed Income Supplement to Old Age Security. It comes close to pushing seniors above the poverty line. Ease Canadians into it with child benefits.

“And pending improvements to income-tested child benefits promised by the Trudeau government will deliver a maximum transfer which comes close to the cost of raising children and will significantly reduce child poverty,” says Professor Jackson in the Globe and Mail.

Another area in which ITIAN can be applied is the plight of the working poor. Some Canadians are working hard, often at more than one job, and still they live below the poverty line. Additionally, some working-age persons have no or limited employment income. Before they collect social assistance, they have to exhaust almost all assets. Even then, they can only earn so much before pay is clawed back.

Old attitudes linger. At the heart of such meanness is the idea that the poor are deservedly so: they wouldn’t be poor if their poverty wasn’t warranted (insert usual labels here – good-for-nothing, lazy, drunken, native, bad parents, worthless).

Another problem that ITIAN must address is the shrinking eligibility for Employment Insurance benefits. While the Trudeau government has increased benefits in the wake of the collapse of fossil fuel markets, the increases have been unevenly applied and depend on where you live, not a basic living wage.

A solution already exists called the Working Income Tax Benefit. In its 2013 report, the House of Commons human resources committee recommended an increase to WITB to supplement the incomes of low earners who are not eligible for social assistance and who do not usually qualify for much if any for Employment Insurance benefits due to current rules and low and unstable earnings.

Hope springs eternal. ITIAN may be just the trick to make this decades-old dream happen.