The Census: What It Is And Why It Is Important

The United Nations Population Fund recommends taking a census at least once every ten years

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The United Nations Population Fund recommends taking a census at least once every ten years explaining that the information acquired during the census is essential for “the good governance, policy formulation, development planning, risk reduction, crisis response, social welfare programs and business market analyses”

In Ukraine, the last census was held in 2001. The next census is planned for 2020, and the trial census has been under way in December 2019. However, the government still has doubts on whether census is needed. 

In this article we provide several arguments for the necessity of the census.

What is a census?

A census is the procedure of collecting information about all people living in a country (i.e. the population).

During a census the data is collected about each person’s 

  • age, gender, education, place of residence, family members; 
  • her sources of income, how many jobs a person has, whether she has any problems with employment and if yes what those problems are;    
  • whether a person lives in this place permanently, whether she lived abroad or plans to move to another place in Ukraine or abroad, what are the reasons for relocation (migration data);    
  • what are this person’s living conditions – the availability of hot and cold running water, WC, electricity, gas, central heating, age of a house etc.  

A census allows to obtain detailed information not only about individuals but also about their families (households). For example, from census data we can learn in how many households parents live together with their adult children, how many families have more than two children, what education and occupation each household member has etc.

It is also important that people are surveyed at their places of residence which means that census data is accurate at the level of the smallest villages or towns. 

Such data cannot be obtained during sample surveys. Sample surveys always have some error.  This error can be very significant at the level of small localities (villages, small towns, amalgamated territorial communes). 

Why is a census necessary?

A census is the foundation of representative democracy. For example, the US Constitution stipulates the necessity of Census, and many federal agencies are obliged to use census data for policy development. 

Census data are used to define the boundaries of electoral districts, so that each member of parliament represents approximately equal share of population. This issue is very relevant for Ukraine since the next election will most probably be held according to the current voting system (half proportional and half single-mandate districts).

Public funds distribution and territory planning are based on census. The experience of international technical assistance projects that facilitate decentralization shows that in many Ukrainian communes the number of people reported by local administrations is considerably (two times in some places) higher than the numbers provided by the State Statistical Service (SSS).

The SSS estimates are based on the data of 2001 census adjusted by the quantity of births, deaths and registered migration. Obviously this data is inaccurate. The error can be very high. For example, prior to the 2001 census, the estimated population of Ukraine was 49.5 million. The actual number obtained during the census was 48.5 million. This means that the accumulated error since the previous census held in 1989 was 1 million people.

At the same time, local administrations have incentives to overestimate the quantity of people in order to get more subventions for their community. The population census could solve the problem of who is right – the SSS or local authorities.  

Сensus is the basis of knowledge about the society and public opinion. In all the sociological surveys you can see the phrase “the survey is based on a representative sample”. The “representative sample” means that from the answers of several hundred or thousand respondents one can make inferences about the entire population of Ukraine (the minimal sample size for all-Ukraine representative sample is 1200). This means that the sample structure in terms of sex, age, regions should correspond to the structure of Ukrainian population known from census. Today representative samples are based on the data of the 2001 census.  

The representative samples are used for labor force surveys (which provide the data on unemployment), household budget surveys (which allow to calculate poverty rates), surveys of public opinions (e.g. support levels of certain political parties) etc.

The census is the basis for demographic forecast. Since demographic forecasts span for long periods (30-50 years), forecasting error can be rather high. This error can be reduced by maximizing accuracy of the input data on population structure. The most accurate data are provided by census.  In its turn, demographic forecast data is necessary to design sustainable retirement and welfare systems, family support policies etc.

The census is needed for effective protection of human rights. A census can ‘discover’ groups of people that are ‘invisible’ for representative sample surveys. These groups can be ethnic minorities, marginalized or poorest groups, or people avoiding official registration because of religious or other reasons. A census can provide the data not only on the size of such groups but also about their living conditions. This will help develop policies aimed at these groups.  

In its turn, the efficiency of human rights protection, especially of the minority rights, is the cornerstone of democratic development of a country.

In Ukraine, the census will finally provide accurate information on internally displaced persons.  Based on this information the decisions could be made, for example, on providing additional social infrastructure at places where many IDPs live.     

The census is necessary for reliable economic statistics and international comparisons. The precise information obtained from census is needed for estimation of such indicators as GDP or investments per capita, average education rate, poverty rate and many others used to compare Ukraine with other countries.  

Business needs census data for strategic planning – first of all for decisions on where to build production facilities. Demographic forecast can help determine labour market trends and evaluate risks. “Social portrait” of local residents is needed for marketing and promotion of goods and services.  The list of business uses of census data is very long. And this data can never be replaced by “big data” collected by business about us. 

Census data is of help in the issues of national security and international diplomacy. International researchers who are not very familiar with the Ukrainian context sometimes base their understanding of Ukrainian situation on a few available studies that can be biased. For example they can proliferate the clichés on the ‘civil war in Ukraine’ and numerous Russians, Russian-speaking or pro-Russian Ukrainians who need military protection. This approach is dangerous, as we have written at some international platforms.  We used the census data among other arguments. The up-to-date data is a valuable source of information about social and political context of Ukraine. It is also a powerful tool of international dialogue and diplomacy.

What is the best way to implement a census?

The “conventional” census procedure is door-to-door survey of households by interviewers equipped with paper questionnaires or tablets. At the same time, people can provide the information by phone or via Internet. 

It is vital to secure the data confidentiality.  The information on each person is used for overall estimates for each locality but individual data are never revealed.  Nobody is allowed to acquire personal information provided during a census without the respondent’s consent.

Unfortunately, during the census some persons can be missed and others can be surveyed twice.  Therefore, post-surveys are usually performed to evaluate the scale of the problem and to adjust the census data. A very clear description of census procedures is given in the journal of British statistics department. 

Nowadays about a half of European countries implement electronic census by merging the data of various registries. However, to do this the registries should be of high quality so that it is possible to count all the people and at the same time avoid double-counting. Moreover, some information cannot be obtained during registries-based census (for example, nationality or a mother tongue).  Therefore, the data of such censuses is supplemented by representative sampling surveys. 

It is clear from a recent VoxUkraine discussion that today Ukraine has no registries of appropriate quality. However, implementation of a “conventional” census in 2020 or 2021 will allow the transition to registries-based census in the future. In particular, addresses registry will be updated for the “conventional” census.

So is a census too costly for Ukraine? We believe that economizing on the data quality is ill-advised since losses from inefficient policies can be much higher.   

Also, from the macroeconomic point of view expenses on the census are a fiscal stimulus. About 100 thousand people, mostly students and pensioners, will be employed for several weeks during census. This resembles public works organized by the State Employment Service (approximately 170-180 thousand people take part in temporary public works every year).

P.S. Counting people based on the data of mobile phone operators or other indirect sources is not a census. In fact, this is a representative survey which can also be rather expensive. As discussed above, the quantity of population is only the top of the iceberg. Informed policy-making requires much more accurate and complete data.

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