Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Applicability of Findings to the Measurement of Economic Phenomena

06/01/2002

One of the problems in drawing inferences from other substantive fields to that of economic phenomena is the difference in the nature of the measures of interest. Much of the assessment of the quality of household-based survey reports concerns the reporting of discrete behaviors; many of the economic measures that are the subject of inquiry with respect to the measurement of the welfare population are not necessarily discrete behaviors or even phenomena that can be linked to a discrete memory. Some of the phenomena of interest could be considered trait phenomena. Let's consider the reporting of occupation. We speculate that the cognitive process by which one formulates a response to a query concerning current occupation is different from the process related to reporting the number of doctor visits during the past year.

For other economic phenomena, we speculate that individual differences in the approach to formulating a response impact the magnitude and direction of error associated with the measurement process. Consider the reporting of current earnings related to employment. For some respondents, the request to report current earnings requires little cognitive effort--it may be almost an automatic response. For these individuals, wages may be considered a characteristic of their self-identity, a trait related to how they define themselves. For other individuals, the request for information concerning current wages may require the retrieval of information from a discrete episode (the last paycheck), the retrieval of a recent report of the information (the reporting of wages in an application for a credit card), or the construction of an estimate at the time of the query based on the retrieval of information relevant to the request.

Given both the theoretical and empirical research conducted within multiple branches of psychology and survey methodology, what would we anticipate are the patterns of measurement error for various economic measures? The response to that question is a function of how the respondent's task is formulated and the very nature of the phenomena of interest. For example, asking a respondent to provide an estimate of the number of weeks of unemployment during the past year is quite different from the task of asking the respondent to report the starting and stopping dates of each unemployment spell for the past year. For individuals in a steady state (constant employment or unemployment), neither task could be considered a difficult cognitive process. For these individuals, employment or unemployment is not a discrete event but rather may become encoded in memory as a trait that defines the respondent. However, for the individual with sporadic spells of unemployment throughout the year, the response formulation process most likely would differ for the two questions. Although the response formulation process for the former task permits an estimation strategy on the part of the respondent, the latter requires the retrieval of discrete periods of unemployment. For the reporting of these discrete events, we would hypothesize that patterns of response error evident in the reporting of events in other substantive fields would be observed. With respect to social desirability, we would anticipate patterns similar to those evident in other types of behaviors: overreporting of socially desirable behaviors and underreporting of socially undesirable behaviors.

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