# Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Nonresponse Error on Different Types of Statistics

The discussion in the previous section focused on the effect of nonresponse on estimates of the population mean, using the sample mean. This section briefly reviews effects of nonresponse on other popular statistics. We examine the case of an estimate of a population total, the difference of two subclass means, and a regression coefficient.

The Population Total

Estimating the total number of some entity is common in federal, state, and local government surveys. For example, most countries use surveys to estimate the total number of unemployed persons, the total number of new jobs created in a month, the total retail sales, and the total number of criminal victimizations. Using similar notation as previously, the population total is which is estimated by a simple expansion estimator, or by a ratio expansion estimator, where X is some auxiliary variable, correlated with Y, for which target population totals are known. For example, if y were a measure of the length of first employment spell of a welfare leaver, and x were a count of sample welfare leavers, X would be a count of the total number of welfare leavers.

For variables that have nonnegative values (like count variables), simple expansion estimators of totals based only on respondents always underestimate the total. This is because the full sample estimator is

(6)

FULL SAMPLE ESTIMATE OF POPULATION TOTAL = RESPONDENT-BASED ESTIMATE + NONRESPONDENT- BASED ESTIMATE

Hence, the bias in the respondent-based estimator is

(7)

It is easy to see, thereby, that the respondent-based total (for variables that have nonnegative values) always will underestimate the full sample total, and thus, in expectation, the full population total.

The Difference of Two Subclass Means

Many statistics of interest from sample surveys estimate the difference between the means of two subpopulations. For example, the Current Population Survey often estimates the difference in the unemployment rate for black and nonblack men. The National Health Interview Survey estimates the difference in the mean number of doctor visits in the past 12 months between males and females.

Using the expressions above, and using subscripts 1 and 2 for the two subclasses, we can describe the two respondent means as

(8)

(9)

These expressions show that each respondent subclass mean is subject to an error that is a function of a nonresponse rate for the subclass and a deviation between respondents and nonrespondents in the subclass. The reader should note that the nonresponse rates for individual subclasses could be higher or lower than the nonresponse rates for the total sample. For example, it is common that nonresponse rates in large urban areas are higher than nonresponse rates in rural areas. If these were the two subclasses, the two nonresponse rates would be quite different.

If we were interested in as a statistic of interest, the bias in the difference of the two means would be approximately

(10)

Many survey analysts are hopeful that the two terms in the bias expression cancel. That is, the bias in the two subclass means is equal. If one were dealing with two subclasses with equal nonresponse rates that hope is equivalent to a hope that the difference terms are equal to one another. This hope is based on an assumption that nonrespondents will differ from respondents in the same way for both subclasses. That is, if nonrespondents tend to be unemployed versus respondents, on average, this will be true for all subclasses in the sample.

If the nonresponse rates were not equal for the two subclasses, then the assumptions of canceling biases is even more complex. For example, lets continue to assume that the difference between respondent and nonrespondent means is the same for the two subclasses. That is, assume Under this restrictive assumption, there can still be large nonresponse biases.

For example, Figure 1-2 examines differences of two subclass means where the statistics are proportions (e.g., the proportion currently employed). The figure treats the case in which the proportion employed among respondents in the first subclass (say, women on welfare a long time) is = 0.5 and the proportion employed among respondents in the second subclass (say, women on welfare a short time) is = 0.3. This is fixed for all cases in the figure. We examine the nonresponse bias for the entire set of differences between respondents and nonrespondents. That is, we examine situations where the differences between respondents and nonrespondents lie between -0.5 and 0.3. (This difference applies to both subclasses.) The first case of a difference of 0.3 would correspond to

FIGURE 1-2.  Illustration of nonresponse bias for difference between proportion currently employed (0.5 employed among respondents on welfare a short time versus 0.3 employed among respondents on welfare a long time), given comparable differences in each subclass between respondents and nonrespondents.
SOURCE:  Groves and Couper (1998).

The figure shows that when the two nonresponse rates are equal to one another, there is no bias in the difference of the two subclass means. However, when the response rates of the two subclasses are different, large biases can result. Larger biases in the difference of subclass means arise with larger differences in nonresponse rates in the two subclasses (note the higher absolute value of the bias for any given value for the case with a .05 nonresponse rate in subclass [1 and a 0.5, in subclass 2] than for the other cases).

A Regression Coefficient

Many survey data sets are used by analysts to estimate a wide variety of statistics measuring the relationship between two variables. Linear models testing causal assertions often are estimated on survey data. Imagine, for example, that the analysts were interested in the model

(11)

which using the respondent cases to the survey, would be estimated by

(12)

The ordinary least squares estimator of Br1 is

(13)

Both the numerator and denominator of this expression are subject to potential nonresponse bias. For example, the bias in the covariance term in the numerator is approximately

(14)

where srxy is the respondent-based estimate of the covariance between x and y based on the sample (Srxy is the population equivalent) and Smxy is a similar quantity for nonrespondents.

This bias expression can be either positive or negative in value. The first term in the expression has a form similar to that of the bias of the respondent mean. It reflects a difference in covariances for the respondents (Srxy) and nonrespondents (Smxy). It is large in absolute value when the nonresponse rate is large. If the two variables are more strongly related in the respondent set than in the nonrespondent, the term has a positive value (that is the regression coefficient tends to be overestimated). The second term has no analogue in the case of the sample mean; it is a function of cross-products of difference terms. It can be either positive or negative depending on these deviations.

As Figure 1-3 illustrates, if the nonrespondent units have distinctive combinations of values on the x and y variables in the estimated equation, then the slope of the regression line can be misestimated. The figure illustrates the case when the pattern of nonrespondent cases (designated by ) differ from that of respondent cases (designated by ). The result is the fitted line on respondents only has a larger slope than that for the full sample. In this case, normally the analyst would find more support for a hypothesized relationship than would be true for the full sample.

We can use equation (14) to illustrate notions of ignorable and nonignorable nonresponse. Even in the presence of nonresponse, the nonresponse bias of regression coefficients may be negligible if the model has a specification that reflects all the causes of nonresponse related to the dependent variable. Consider a survey in which respondents differ from nonrespondents in their employment status because there are systematic differences in the representation of different education and race groups among respondents and nonrespondents. Said differently, within education and race groups, the employment rates of respondents and nonrespondents are equivalent. In this case, ignoring this information will produce a biased estimate of unemployment rates. Using an employment rate estimation scheme that accounts for differences in education and race group response rate can eliminate the bias. In equation (12), letting x be education and race can reduce the nonresponse bias in estimating a y, employment propensity.

Considering Survey Participation a Stochastic Phenomenon

The previous discussion made the assumption that each person (or household) in a target population either is a respondent or a nonrespondent for all possible surveys. That is, it assumes a fixed property for each sample unit regarding the survey request. They always will be a nonrespondent or they always will be a respondent, in all realizations of the survey design.

An alternative view of nonresponse asserts that every sample unit has a probability of being a respondent and a probability of being a nonrespondent. It takes the perspective that each sample survey is but one realization of a survey design. In this case, the survey design contains all the specifications of the research data collection. The design includes the definition of the sampling frame; the sample design; the questionnaire design; choice of mode; hiring, selection, and training regimen for interviewers; data collection period, protocol for contacting sample units; callback rules; refusal conversion rules; and so on. Conditional on all these fixed properties of the sample survey, sample units can make different decisions regarding their participation.

In this view, the notion of a nonresponse rate takes on new properties. Instead of the nonresponse rate merely being a manifestation of how many nonrespondents were sampled from the sampling frame, we must acknowledge that in each realization of a survey different individuals will be respondents and nonrespondents. In this perspective the nonresponse rate given earlier (m/n) is the result of a set of Bernoulli trials; each sample unit is subject to a coin flip to determine whether it is a respondent or nonrespondent on a particular trial. The coins of various sample units may be weighted differently; some will have higher probabilities of participation than others. However, all are involved in a stochastic process of determining their participation in a particular sample survey.

The implications of this perspective on the biases of respondent means, respondent totals, respondent differences of means, and respondent regression coefficients are minor. The more important implication is on the variance properties of unadjusted and adjusted estimates based on respondents.

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