Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Empirical Results and Relation to Best Practice

06/01/2002

These 14 studies provide some data on the possibilities and limitations related to conducting welfare-leaver studies. Many of these studies are implementing the best practices summarized in Table 2-1. These include, for example, advance letters, incentives, tracking/tracing, and refusal conversion. Resulting response rates ranged from a low of 30 percent to a high of 80 percent. Many studies are in the 40 to 50 percent range.

It is clear from these data, as well as from the authors collective experience, that no single design feature guarantees a high response rate. The effectiveness of particular methods varies by situation and a number of methods are needed to maximize response rates. A useful illustration is a survey that was completed in Iowa of current and former Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients (Stapulonis et al, 1999). This was a mixed-mode survey that implemented all of the methods discussed earlier, including: (1) repeated mailings to respondents, (2) use of telephone interviewers experienced in tracking respondents over the phone, (3) incentive payments, (4) specialized database searches, and (5) use of field staff to trace and interview respondents. As reported by Stapulonis et al. (1999), no single method produced a high response. A response rate of approximately 25 to 30 percent was achieved through the use of the telephone. At the end of 16 weeks, a 48-percent response rate was achieved by offering an incentive of $10 and sending cases into the field. The remainder of the 60-week field period was used to increase the rate to 72 percent. During this interim period, numerous methods were instituted, such as increasing incentive payments, remailings (using express mail) to households, field tracing, and using more specialized tracing sources and methods. The latter included using highly experienced trackers in the telephone center and the field.

The data in Table 2-2 seem to indicate that the mixed-mode approach, at least as currently implemented by most of these states, is necessary to achieve response rates of at least 50 percent. The data also indicate that for many studies, use of only the telephone yields a response rate of approximately 30 to 40 percent. The clearest example of this is study #1 and #2. These two studies were completed in the same state by the same organizations. In study #1, where a 30- percent response rate was obtained, only telephone and limited tracking was done from a central office. Study #2 instituted a number of additional tracing steps, but also added a field component. Similarly, study #7 reported a 25 to 30-percent response rate before going into the field and study #8 reported a 40-percent response rate before releasing cases to the field. The major exceptions to these patterns are the few studies that report final response rates of at least 70 percent. In these instances, the response rate obtained over the telephone is at least 50 percent and, in one case, 66 percent. Study #14 had a response rate of 72 percent and reported very poor experiences with their field tracers. Effectively, most of their cases were completed using the telephone. A few of these higher rates were achieved as part of planned experiments, where contact was initiated while the recipient was in the program. Other successes may be attributed more to the quality of the information available at the start of the study. Overall, we believe that if response rates of at least 50 percent are desired, it would seem important to use both telephone and field personnel to trace and locate respondents.

This pattern is consistent with our general experience in working with low-income populations. Although it is possible, using proper procedures and preparation, to complete a significant number of interviews via mail and telephone, a proportion of this group simply does not respond to anything but in-person contacts. This may be related to this groups mobility rate, the intermittent availability of the telephone, or simply busy work schedules. Whatever is the case, it is unlikely that achieving extremely high response rates (e.g., 70 percent or above) for welfare leavers can be achieved by simply the use of mail or telephone interviews.

Tracking Respondents

As one might expect, the primary source of nonresponse in these studies is noncontact, rather than refusals. For example, of the 25-percent nonresponse in the study #6, approximately 17 percent is from not being able to locate respondents and 8 percent is from refusals. For surveys that have lower response rates (e.g., around 50 percent), the percent of nonlocatables is even higher. This suggests that improving response rates has to do most with improving tracking.

Given this, an important component to pushing response rates above 50 percent is to improve the ability to find subjects. This relates to both the type of staff and the type of information available for finding the subjects. Study #6, with a 78-percent response rate, is a good illustration of the importance of experienced staff. This study did not implement many of the procedures discussed previously, including prenotification letters, refusal conversion, or incentives. The staff doing the interviewing and tracing, however, were program quality assurance personnel. Because part of their job is to find and interview welfare recipients to conduct audits, they were highly experienced in finding this population. In addition, the supervisor seemed to have very strong oversight of the interviewers progress. Similarly, study #14 completed all interviews over the telephone and achieved a 72-percent response rate. The study did not offer a monetary incentive and did not conduct refusal conversion. The success of this survey was attributed to the interviewers, who were also part of the quality assurance program.

Alternatively, a number of survey directors reported that the major barriers they encountered were related to inexperienced staff, either in the phone center or in the field, in tracking and tracing subjects. Stapulonis et al. (1999) report failure of a field effort because of inexperienced field trackers, as did the survey director for study #8. In the latter case, the telephone interviewers were asked to conduct field interviewing.

Our experience has been very similar to this profile and it applies to in-person interviewing as well as tracking from a central telephone facility. The ability to look over case records, find leads, and followup on those leads requires the ingenuity of a detective, as well as a personality that gains trust when calling neighbors or other community members.

Having solid information from which to trace subjects is also essential to finding them eventually. As noted previously, most survey directors commented on the poor quality of the information contained in the original sample records. In many cases, the information is quite old (e.g., up to 6-9 months) and, in many cases, of questionable accuracy. Because this is a highly mobile population, the age of the records limits the utility of the information quickly. Study #2 attempted to minimize this problem by beginning the tracking process as soon as subjects came off the welfare records. Although this may lead to tracking too many people,(3) it provided a way to maintain contact with subjects until the field interviewing started 6 months later. The success of this process is yet to be evaluated, but this method may provide a way to keep the information about sampled persons as up to date as possible.

All the studies had Social Security numbers for subjects, as well as access to databases in other parts of the government (e.g., motor vehicle registrations, food stamps, child support enforcement, Medicaid, unemployment insurance). These provide a powerful set of tools to find respondents. However, only two of the studies have tracing contact information, containing the names and phone numbers of at least one person, preferably someone who the subject does not live with, who is likely to know where the person is at any point in the future. These two studies both achieved response rates above 75 percent. Both studies were experiments, set up in advance to sample clients at intake and collect this information at that time.

The availability of tracing contacts would not only improve the tracking rates for these studies, but it would reduce the amount of time devoted to tracing. In fact, our experience, has shown that with good tracing contacts, as well as occasional interim contacts with subjects (e.g., every 6 months), little in-person tracking has to be done. Respondents can be located by interviewers making update phone calls. This is what many longitudinal surveys do as part of their routine activities for staying in touch with respondents. As a point of illustration, Westat recently completed a feasibility study that located 85 percent of subjects 3 years after their last contact with the study. These subjects were high-risk youth who had been diverted into a family counseling program in 1993 and were last contacted in 1996. At that time, tracing contact information had been collected. This population lived in highly urbanized, poor neighborhoods and could be considered comparable to those being traced in the welfare-leaver studies discussed previously. Approximately 67 percent of the population was found through the use of mail and telephone contacts. The remaining 18 percent were found by field tracing.

Increasing Cooperation

Pushing response rates higher also can be done through selective adoption of other methods related to making the response task easier. Some percentage of the persons classified as nonlocatable are really tacit refusers. That is, some of those individuals that cant be located are explicitly avoiding contact with the interviewer or field tracer because of reluctance to participate in the survey. This reluctance may be because the person does not want to take the time to do the survey or it may be more deep-seated and related to a general fear of being found by anyone who happens to be looking for them.

Several of the studies found that repeated mailings to the same addresses over time did result in completed interviews. This approach seemed to be especially effective when these mailings were tied to increased incentives. This approach would tend to support the idea that at least some portion of the noncontacts are actually persons who are tacitly refusing to do the interview, at least the first few times around. Express mail was also used for selected followup mailings, although it is unclear whether this method of delivery was particularly effective.

As noted in Table 2-2, a number of the studies do not implement any type of refusal conversion. The reluctance stems from fear that this would be viewed as coercive, because the agency conducting the research is the same agency responsible for providing benefits on a number of support programs. Other survey groups, however, reported confidence in conducting refusal conversion activities, as long as they were convinced the interviewers were well trained and understood the line between trying to directly address respondents concerns and coercion. In fact, many initial refusals are highly situational. The interviewer may call when the kids are giving the parent an especially difficult time or at a time when the subject just came home from an exhausting day at work. In another situation, the respondent may not have understood the nature of the survey request. In all of these cases, calling back at another time, with an elaborated explanation of the survey, is useful. In fact, one study director reported that about 50 percent of the initial refusers in the study were eventually converted to final completed interviews. This is not out of line with refusal conversion rates found on other studies, either of the general or low-income populations.

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