Master of the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, Istanbul. Mary and Joseph register as part of the Census of Quirinius, 1315-1320, Chora Church, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Detail

Census missing

In those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world (Luke 2,1).

The current suspension of the census in Brazil, already a year late, shows that a statistical survey such as this one, which has now been taken for granted in many countries, is fundamental. 

More and more accurate data

Over the years, the availability of statistical data has increased considerably, yet the demand for more specific, more precise or more detailed data is still alive. To give an Italian example, among those I know best, we can mention the figure on absolute poverty, recorded by ISTAT every year with a survey of household consumption. In this respect, those who work in the sector think it is necessary an intra-family disaggregation. A measure that does not detect these differences assumes that the household income and wealth are divided equally within it, which empirically is not proven. On the other hand, such a breakdown would enable us to understand better how poverty affects women and men and how it affects young people and the elderly within the same family. Another particularly useful disaggregation would be the geographical one. Today the observation unit is over-regional (North West, North East, Center, South and Islands). It would be essential to understand how poverty is distributed at a much more precise level, if not at municipal or neighbourhood level, at least at the level of the social assistance units (Ambito sociale territoriale). The usefulness of a greater level of detail is undoubted: it allows us to design better public policies, focus them more precisely and finally measure the result more accurately. 

However, a higher level of detail implies higher costs.

Broadening the horizon 

Looking out of our little garden, we see these issues differently. Take, for instance, the census of the population, which is the most widespread and also one of the oldest statistics. “The origin of the census is very remote”, according to the Dictionary of History, “the enumerations of the population are the first statistical surveys of which one has memory. There is documentation of this for the ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Assyrian, Jewish, Greek, and Roman civilizations. The modern phase of censuses dates back to the 17th century when several states (Scandinavian countries, Spain, United States of America) started census operations with purposes and requirements close to the contemporary ones 1. Today, most states in the world carry out some kind of census. Nevertheless, the periodicity and the quality of these surveys are very variable. The United Nations keeps track of these findings. A recent report found that of the 240 states mapped, 8% had census data dated before 2004, and 67% made the census between 2005 and 2014 2.

Brazil 2021

Despite that, in middle-income countries, the census is something that is now taken for granted. That is why what is happening in Brazil in recent weeks is causing great controversy. The census of the Brazilian population was scheduled for 2020 (“in its modern form the census must meet the following requirements: it must be direct, individual, universal, simultaneous and with a defined periodicity” [[1] S. Guarracino, A. De Bernardi, Dizionario di storia, Bruno Mondadori Editore, Milano 1995]). Not having been implemented in 2020 due to the pandemic, it has been postponed to 2021. In the state budget, approved at the end of 2020, instead of the 2 billion Reais (about 315 million euros) necessary for the realization of the census, only 71 million (about 11 thousand euros) were put in place 3. Given this situation, at the beginning of May, the newly appointed Brazilian Statistical Institute (IBGE) director said that it is still possible to carry out the census if the 2 billion is reinstated. The institute’s officials take a different view, speaking on the same days that it is no longer possible to achieve it in the current year. The matter has already reached the Supremo Tribunal Federal (highest body of the judiciary), which has issued a ruling obliging the Government to carry out the census — thus reintroducing a sufficient budget for this purpose 4. On May the 8th, the Government, which intends to implement the census in the next year, challenged the judgement 5. According to the specialists, the two-year delay in carrying out the census leads to a loss of quality in social policies, a reduction in the distribution of resources to municipalities and a misalignment in employment and income data 6. Others claim that the “data blackout” is intentional on the part of the Government 7.

As the Instituto Socioambiental points out in a note, the non-implementation of the census this year would have dire consequences for public policies, especially for those less protected parts of the population: indigenous, quilombola (maroons, Afro-descendants) and other traditional peoples and communities of Brazil. “The direction of resources for public policies is based on demographics. Indigenous peoples have been totally damaged in the national vaccination plan, precisely because their number has been underestimated”, says Dinaman Tuxá, the executive coordinator of the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (Apib) 8.

  1. S. Guarracino, A. De Bernardi, Dizionario di storia, Bruno Mondadori Editore, Milano 1995
  2. United Nations, Population and Vital Statistics Report, Jan. 2021, available at:
  3. Redação, É preciso fazer o censo, in «Folha de São Paulo», 2021, p. 2
  4. E. Cucolo, Censo pode ser feito em 2021, se houver verba, diz presidente do IBGE, in «Folha de São Paulo», 1/5/2021, p. 26
  5. T. Resende, AGU recorre da ordem do Supremo de realizar o Censo em 2021, in «Folha de São Paulo», 8/5/2021, p. 24
  6. D. Gavras, Adiamento do Censo prejudica políticas sociais e repasses, in «Folha de São Paulo», 23/4/2021, p. 19
  7. B. Boghossian, Apagão de dados é política do governo que corta o censo, in «Folha de São Paulo», 25/4/2021, pp. 1–2
  8. See

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