Rural Research Needs and Data Sources
for Selected Human Services Topics

Volume 1: Research Needs
Volume 2: Data Sources

May 31, 2005

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About this Research Summary

This ASPE Research Summary highlights findings of research performed under contract by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. on human services conditions in rural America. Volume 1 describes general conditions and key trends in rural areas and identifies gaps in existing rural research on three focal topics — work supports, substance abuse, and child welfare. Volume 2 describes the characteristics of 20 federal and nonfederal and 60 state administrative data sources that could support empirical research on the three focal topics in rural America. To help address the problem caused by multiple “rural” classification systems, Volume 2 also describes the geographic coding characteristics of several key rural definitions.

Rural areas are different from urban areas in their socioeconomic conditions, the status and prevalence of health and human services-related conditions, the availability and characteristics of services and social supports, and the social and cultural factors that can affect the quality, availability, use, and cost of needed services. These factors can affect rural areas in both positive and negative ways, but, in contrast to urban areas, less is known about them. Rural human services research is considerably less developed as a discipline than rural health services research, due in part to the difficulty of finding suitable data for study.

The main goal of this study was to develop an inventory of databases (federal, nonfederal, and state-level administrative data) that researchers could use to study selected human services-related conditions and the accessibility and utilization of human services in rural areas. Three human services issues were focal topics for the project — work supports for low-income families, substance abuse, and child welfare. While these topics address serious challenges for all low-income families, the potential for limited access or effectiveness of services in rural areas makes research on the rural aspect of these topics particularly important.

Volume 1 summarizes contemporary literature on the three focal topics and identifies methodological shortcomings and gaps in existing rural research on each topic. Volume 2 identifies sources of data that include rural samples that could be used to study the three focal topics in rural areas. Twenty federal and nonfederal data sources are described in Volume 2, along with 60 state administrative data sources from 23 states. State administrative data, though not designed or collected for research purposes, have several attributes that can make it useful for rural research, e.g., it includes all (urban and rural) program participants, and it generally includes detailed geographic identifiers for each record.


There is no single, standardized definition that designates populations and places as rural or urban. Rural areas are defined by population size, population density, commuting patterns, or other measures of isolation. Key rural definitions have been developed by the Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Bureau of the Census, along with other, more detailed classification systems. The choice of definition can affect the data that are available for research. In addition, a researcher needs to understand how the “rural” label was applied in a dataset and whether the label is consistent with both the aims and approach of the research project and the other data with which it may be combined or compared.

In contrast to urban areas, less is known about human and social services conditions in rural areas, the social services rural residents need and use, and the effectiveness of those services. Research limitations include both methodological constraints in existing studies and an overall lack of empirical research on some important issues. Taken as a whole, much of the research on rural areas addresses circumstances in a specific locality with results that may be the consequence of local implementation factors, and not generalizable to other or all rural areas. Some national studies exclude rural sites altogether or, if they do include both rural and nonrural sites, do not report rural and nonrural results separately.

One of the major difficulties in conducting rural research is finding suitable data. To address this finding, Volume 2 of the report, Data Sources, is a compilation of federal, nonfederal and state data sources that can be used to conduct research on the rural aspects of three human services focal topics: work supports, substance abuse, and child welfare. Descriptions of the content of each database, strengths and weaknesses for rural research purposes, and availability to researchers, including the circumstances under which the data can be made available and any safeguards that must be in place before researchers can access it, are provided.

Several steps could be taken by researchers or their sponsors to strengthen rural data and research and improve the quantity and quality of rural human services information:

Michael J. O’Grady, Ph.D.
Assistant Secretary

Barbara B. Broman
Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Services Policy

Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE)
Office of Human Services Policy
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Washington, DC 20201

Contractor:  Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.
Project Staff:  Michael Ponza, Debra A. Strong, Patricia Del Grosso, Andrew Burwick, Venita Jethwani, Jigar Bhatt, Shannon Phillips and Kathryn Scheppke
Project Officers:  Peggy Halpern and Ann McCormick, ASPE Office of Human Services Policy

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Last revised:  10/05/05