In the Best Practices booklet published by the American Association of Public Opinion Research (1997a) 1 of the 12 named best practices is to maximize cooperation or response rates within the limits of ethical treatment of human subjects (p. 5). In surveys concentrated on low-income populations, high response rates are especially important. In the past few years, there has been a great deal of interest in finding out what is happening to people after they leave the welfare rolls. Outside of the usual concern about nonrespondents causing a potential bias, there is often the need to stratify populations by their relationship to welfare systems. For example, though those that leave welfare are of great interest, so are the stayers, as are potential applicants diverted from programs or those who do not apply. If samples are to be large enough to make meaningful comparisons among groups, then nonresponse must be kept to a minimum.
Low-income populations are of special interest to survey practitioners. Whether one is doing a survey of employment, crime victimizations, health conditions, or health insurance status, the low-income population has an abundance of people who are having difficulty. In its most recent report on poverty, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that people who worked at any time during 1998 had a lower poverty rate than nonworkers (6.3 percent compared with 21.1 percent). The Census Bureau also recently reported that 16.3 percent of all people in the United States were without health insurance for the entire year of 1998, but that 32.3 percent of poor people were in that category (Campbell, 1999).
Of interest to the survey community are the statistics cited by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt about access to communication services in the United States. Of households on food stamps, roughly 30 percent have telephone service. In 1993, 27 percent of households with children and below the poverty line did not have phone service. About 12 percent of unemployed adults did not have phone service.
This lack of telephone service shows the importance of expanding the mode of data collection for low-income persons beyond telephone surveys. Nonresponse rates by income type show that refusals are lowest for low-income populations (Groves and Couper, 1998). However, those who are not contacted in surveys are clustered among those who are in the low-income groups. Groves and Couper show that in areas of high population density, more than 6 percent of the population were not contacted. In central cities, 7.2 percent were not contacted. When homeownership was below 48.5 percent, 4.9 percent were not contacted. In areas where minorities made up more than 8 percent of the population, the noncontact rate was 3.6 percent or higher. Therefore, when looking at income distributions, the high end would be underrepresented primarily because of refusals and the low income would be underrepresented because of noncontacts. If the low-income population is approached only by telephone, the nonresponse rates would be even higher because of the lower incidence of telephones among this population.
In-person efforts will be critical to achieving high response rates for people who have no usual residence, those who move frequently, those who have no telephones, and those who need some immediate gratification before they agree to be interviewed. Often, concepts and ideas can be explained easier when face to face.
The low-income populations of interest in surveys present some special challenges. They are often hard to find. Though they may have lived at a fixed address at one time, low-income people move often, mostly within the same neighborhood, but not always. Sometimes they live in regular housing until their money runs out, then live on the streets until the next influx of money. A survey organization must be prepared to spend resources locating respondents. Low-income respondents are often suspicious of strangers and the government. Often they do not want to be found. Names are not always given freely, nor are responses to where people can be found. In National Opinion Research Center (NORC) surveys, a common problem is that it is hard to make and keep appointments with potential respondents.
In addition, because of high immigration in the past 15 years, many people in the population do not speak English. In many surveys, people who do not speak English or Spanish are excluded. However, in surveys of low-income populations, these people with language barriers may be extremely important. Thus, a survey organization must be ready to find interviewers who speak the needed languages, and have a facility for translating questionnaires. Using a questionnaire translated into other languages brings additional problems. The translated version needs pretesting to make sure that the correct meaning is used and that the basic concepts have not been lost. To make these situations work, it is important to collaborate with the ethnic communities and enlist their help. This collaboration also can be helpful in gaining access to the communities so that respondents will cooperate. Some interesting work at the Census Bureau in a series of ethnographic studies (de la Puente, 1995) shows how a difference in meaning that affects responses can occur when there is not collaboration.
These special issues that arise in interviewing low-income populations all have appropriate solutions. Which of these solutions can be applied for a given survey will be dependent on budget, schedule, and Institutional Review Board (IRB) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) constraints. NORC has conducted several studies of low-income populations and has been successful in interviewing them. This paper reviews the methods leading to success.
All the surveys referenced for this paper are list samples. (Note that the D.C. Networks Study used targeted chain referral sampling to build its list sample.) Five NORC surveys will be referenced to illustrate methods for finding and interviewing these populations. Response rates for the five surveys were all 75 percent or above. Indeed, in follow-up surveys of the same populations, rates higher than 90 percent were achieved in most instances.
To be most relevant for State grantees who are conducting or planning to conduct surveys of low-income and welfare populations, studies with the following characteristics are discussed: respondents are primarily from low-income and/or welfare populations; the sample is clustered within one area rather than being national; paper and pencil interviewing (PAPI) is the mode for all but one of the studies, which is computer-assisted personal interviewing (CAPI); extensive locating is required; and respondents are offered an incentive for participation. Note that the issues related to survey materials being available in multiple languages will not be addressed in this paper; only one of the studies referenced here offered Spanish-language materials, New York Minority Youth.
Each of the five studies used to illustrate NORCs approach to obtaining high response rates with low-income populations is based on a list sample and involves follow-up interviews. These seem most appropriate for people who wish to survey low-income and welfare populations. The lists came from a variety of sources, one of them compiled in the mid-1960s (Woodlawn Studies). List samples illustrate the importance of good methods of locating respondents, many of whom have moved. Each of the studies is confined to a specific area. Though PAPI was used for four of the five studies, CAPI was used for one (D.C. Networks Study). The rationale behind the use of PAPI was either cost or speed. Some people fear that carrying laptops into areas where low-income people live is too dangerous, but NORC has not experienced problems. Laptop surveys in big cities are routinely conducted year-round. (Table 3-1 provides some basic information about the studies we will reference in the paper as: the Seattle Study, the Woodlawn Studies, the New York Minority Youth Study, and the D.C. Networks Study.)
Listing of Representative Surveys of Low-Income Population
|Study Name and Dates of Data Collection Activities
||Percentage of Response Rates
|King County, Washington
||571 for baseline
90-97 on each of four follow-ups
|Lived in Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago in 1966 and 1967
||1,242 African-American respondents
|90 minutes (avg.)
||PAPI, some telephone interviews
|Subsample of mothers of original 1966-67 sample
||1,026 African-American mothers
|90 minutes (avg.)
||PAPI, some telephone interviews
|New York Minority Youth
|East Harlem area of New York City; respondents were 7th-10th graders in 1990
||1,330 youth, 666 mothers.; African-American and Puerto Rican
|D.C. Networks Study
|Washington, D.C., area
targeted chain referral sampling for baseline, now list sample
82 and 62 on followups one and two
|CAPI and ethnographic interviews
NORC has adopted the following protocol outline for obtaining high response rates. It includes measures we have developed to: (1) locate and contact the sample; (2) staff and train interviewers; (3) optimize field support and communications; and (4) control budget and quality.
The following is a compilation of input regarding this topic from NORCs top field management team members who were actively involved in carrying out these studies successfully.