Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Measurement Error in Surveys of the Low-Income Population

06/01/2002

The measurement of the characteristics and behavioral experience among members of the low-income and welfare populations offers particular challenges with respect to reducing various sources of response error. For many of the substantive areas of interest, the behavioral experience of the welfare populations is complex, unstable, and highly variable over time. As the behavioral experience of respondents increases in complexity, so do the cognitive demands of a survey interview. Contrast the task of reporting employment and earnings for an individual continuously employed during the past calendar year with the response task of someone who has held three to four part-time jobs. Other questionnaire topics may request that the respondent report sensitive, threatening, socially undesirable, or perhaps illegal behavior. From both a cognitive and social psychological perspective, there is ample opportunity for the introduction of error in the reporting of the events and behaviors of primary interest in understanding the impacts of welfare reform.

This paper provides an introduction to these sources of measurement error and examines two theoretical frameworks for understanding the various sources of error. The empirical literature concerning the quality of responses for reports of earnings, transfer income, employment and unemployment, and sensitive behaviors is examined, to identify those items most likely to be subjected to response error among the welfare population. The paper concludes with suggestions for attempting to reduce the various sources of error through alternative questionnaire and survey design.

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