Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Administrative Data

06/01/2002

Administrative records can be a valuable source of information about the characteristics and experiences of welfare program beneficiaries and past beneficiaries. To comply with federally mandated time limits on receipt of TANF benefits, states will need to develop the capability to track recipients over time, something not usually done in the old AFDC system. Such longitudinal tracking capability should make program records more useful for analysis; however, differences in programs across states will likely make it harder to conduct cross-state analyses. Research use of administrative records, whether TANF records or records from other systems (e.g., Unemployment Insurance) that can be used to track selected outcomes for welfare and low-income populations, poses many challenges.

Four papers on administrative data covering a wide range of different topics are included in the volume. The four address:

  1. Issues in the matching and cleaning of administrative data;
  2. Issues of access and confidentiality;
  3. Problems in measuring employment and income with administrative data compared to survey data; and
  4. The availability of administrative data on children.

Issues in the matching and cleaning of administrative data are discussed by Goerge and Lee. The authors begin by noting the importance of cleaning administrative data in a comprehensive sense, namely, converting what are management files into analytic files suitable for research use. They also note the importance of matching records across multiple administrative data sets (i.e., record linkage), which provides more information on respondents. A number of issues are involved in the cleaning process, many of which involve methods for assessing data quality and other aspects of the variables available in the administrative data. A number of important issues in record linkage also are discussed, perhaps the most important being the availability and accuracy of matching variables. The authors discuss deterministic and probabilistic record linkage as well as data quality issues in such linkage. The paper concludes with a number of recommendations on the cleaning and linking of administrative data.

Brady, Grand, Powell, and Schink discuss access and confidentiality issues with administrative data in their paper and propose ways for increasing researcher access to administrative data. The authors begin by noting that the legal barriers to obtaining access to administrative data by researchers often are formidable. Although laws in this area generally are intended to apply to private individuals interested in identifying specific persons, researcher access often is denied even though the researcher has no interest in identities and often intends to use the research results to help improve administration of the program. The authors provide a brief overview of the legal framework surrounding administrative data, confidentiality, and privacy, making a number of important distinctions between different types of issues and clarifying the content of several pieces of legislation  federal and state  governing access and confidentiality. They then turn to a review of how 14 ASPE-funded state welfare leaver studies have dealt with these issues and whether general lessons can be learned. The authors conclude that while success in dealing with access and confidentiality problems has been achieved in many cases, the methods for doing so are ad hoc, based on longstanding relationships of trust between state agencies and outside researchers, and not buttressed and supported by an adequate legal framework. Twelve key principles are laid out for governing data access and confidentiality. Finally, the authors recommend more use of masking methods as well as institutional mechanisms such as secure data centers to facilitate responsible researcher access to and use of confidential administrative data.

Hotz and Scholz review the measurement of employment and income from administrative data and discuss why and whether measures taken from administrative data differ from those obtained from survey data. Employment and income are, of course, two of the key outcome variables for welfare reform evaluation and hence assume special importance in data collection. They find that there often are differences in administrative and survey data reports of employment and income and that the differences are traceable to differences in population coverage, in reporting units, in sources of income, in measurement error, and in incentives built into the data-gathering mechanism. The authors provide a detailed review of the quality of employment and income data from, first, the major national survey data sets; then from state-level administrative data taken from Unemployment Insurance records; and, finally, from Internal Revenue Service records. They review what is known about differences in reports across the three as well. The authors conclude with several recommendations on reconciling potentially different results from these data sources.

Administrative data on children are discussed in the paper by Barth, Locklin-Brown, Cuccaro-Alamin, and Needell. The authors first discuss the policy issues surrounding the effects of welfare reform on children and what the mechanisms for those effects might be. They identify several domains of child well-being that conceivably can be measured with administrative data, including health, safety (child abuse and neglect), education, and juvenile justice. In each area, they find that a number of different administrative data sets could be matched, in principle, with welfare records. They identify the exact variables measured in each data set as well. The authors find that good health measures often are present in various data sets, but they are often inaccessible to researchers, while child abuse and neglect data are more often available but have many data quality issues that require careful attention. Education and juvenile justice data are the least accessible to researchers and also contain variables that would only indirectly measure the true outcomes of interest. The authors find that privacy and confidentiality barriers impose significant limitations on access to administrative data on children, similar to the finding in the paper by Brady et al.

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