Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Advance Letter

06/01/2002

The initial correspondence to the respondent is a critical step toward gaining cooperation. It sets the tone of the survey and must compel participation. The advance letter should be straightforward and brief. Proprietary terms and legal jargon should be avoided. The letter explains the study and certifies that the interview: (1) will be strictly confidential; (2) is voluntary; and (3) will be conducted by a properly identified and trained interviewer. If a respondent fee will be provided it should be mentioned, and if such a fee can be exempt from income reporting by virtue of the client obtaining a waiver, that should be mentioned too. (A respondent fee is strongly recommended as a method of assuring maximum response rates.) A toll-free telephone number is supplied in the letter to permit the respondent to ask questions and/or set up an interview.

The advance letter serves another valuable purpose: to update preliminary locating information. The envelope is marked Address Service Requested. This statement will result in the post office providing information about the address/person; if the post office forwards the mail to another address, it will provide notification of that new address. For all other mail that does not go directly to the addressee, the mail is sent back with the reason for return, such as a missing apartment number, transposed street numbers, or lack of forwarding address. If one prefers that the letter not be forwarded, the envelope can be marked Do Not Forward and it will be returned, allowing it to be remailed to the correct address. Names and addresses from returned letters can be submitted in batch mode through the National Change of Address if time allows. Recent experience shows that this latter approach is more useful when the sample is quite outdated, namely 5 years or more. When time and budget allow, it also helps to work the unlocatables through centralized database searches. The sample file should be updated with any leads obtained through this prefield stage; releasing the sample to interviewers without having made the updates will result in extra costs caused by duplicated efforts.

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