Why the census is important to our work

by Dr Dawnelle Clyne
Picture of a very crowded street, early morning in a city.

Listen to Dawnelle discuss these issues on RNZ The Panel (from 4:13)

Census day is 7 March. By then, all of us would have filled in that questionnaire we receive from the government every five years asking for details about ourselves and our households, or, at least, I hope we will.

I have noticed a sense of hesitation amongst some in sharing their information with the government – whether for privacy and confidentiality reasons, a general lack of trust, lack of time, or a lack of understanding of the survey or its value. There are others who simply don’t care. In the 2018 census, an estimated 700,000 New Zealanders (about 14% of the then population) were not fully represented in the census. This figure includes 240,000 people who only partially completed the census form and another 480,000 people who did not complete it. To fill this gap, Stats NZ had the tedious task of imputing data on these missing people from existing administrative data. This process could diminish the accuracy of the data.

Whatever people’s reasons for not filling out the census, ignoring the census has real implications for policy and decision-making. It not only influences decisions made by the government, but such data could also be used by iwi, community groups, businesses, and local authorities in their planning and decision-making processes. For researchers like me, who are interested in population wellbeing, it also affects our research projects that rely on accurate census data; projects that, in some cases, affect policy and government decision-making. And that’s a problem.

The data collected in the census provide a good overview of what life is like in Aotearoa New Zealand. It shows trends in how population dynamics have changed over time, which is important for knowing whether we are progressing, regressing, or not changing at all. And this feeds into what our tax dollars are used for. The government will want to ensure that the national budget is distributed in an equitable way that brings the most value to the entire New Zealand population, especially to those with the greatest need. But without the census, it might be more difficult to tell where those needs exist – where welfare benefits need to change, where education needs to be funded, where healthcare services need to improve, and so on. Getting that wrong could have a huge impact on our society.

This makes it so important that the census is completed as accurately as possible. The more accurate the responses, the better for the wellbeing of broader society. Inaccurate responses or forgoing filling out the census altogether could be a disservice to you, your whānau, and your communities and could result in underfunding in important areas. It’s important to remember your participation in the census contributes to a better allocation of resources to ensure a better future for all Kiwis.

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