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Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues
The Panel on Data and Methods for Measuring the Effects of Changes in Social Welfare Programs of the National Research Council was formed in 1998 to review the evaluation methods and data that are needed to study the effects of welfare reform. Sponsored by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through a congressional appropriation, the panel has issued interim and final reports (National Research Council, 1999, 2001).
Early in its deliberations, particularly after reviewing the large number of so-called “welfare leaver” studies—studies of how families who left the TANF rolls were faring off welfare—the panel realized that the database for conducting studies of welfare reform had many deficiencies and required attention by policy makers and research analysts. In its final report, the panel concluded that welfare reform evaluation imposes significant demands on the data infrastructure for welfare and low-income populations and that “…inadequacies in the nation’s data infrastructure for social welfare program study constitutes the major barrier to good monitoring and evaluation of the effects of reform” (NRC 2001:146). The panel concluded that national-level surveys were being put under great strain for PRWORA research given their small sample sizes, limited welfare policy-related content, and, often, high rates of nonresponse (see also National Research Council, 1998). State-level administrative data sets, the panel concluded, are of much more importance with the devolution of welfare policy but are difficult to use for research because they were designed for management purposes. In addition, although they have large sample sizes, their content is limited. Surveys for specific states with more detailed content have been only recently attempted—usually telephone surveys of leavers—and the panel expressed concern about the capacity and technical expertise of state governments to conduct such surveys of adequate quality. To date, for example, many surveys of welfare leavers have unacceptably high rates of nonresponse. Overall, the panel concluded that major new investments are needed in the data infrastructure for analysis of welfare and low-income populations.
This concern led the panel to plan a workshop on data collection on welfare and low-income populations for which experts would be asked to write papers addressing in detail not only what the data collection issues are for this population, but also how the quality and quantity of data can be improved. A workshop was held on December 16–17, 1999, in Washington, DC. The agenda for the workshop is listed as an Appendix to this volume. Approximately half the papers presented at the workshop concerned survey data and the other half concerned administrative data; one paper addressed qualitative data. Altogether, the papers provide a comprehensive review of relevant types of data. The volume also contains four additional papers that were commissioned to complement the conference papers. One of them discusses methods for adjusting survey data for nonresponse. The other three papers focus on welfare leavers, a subpopulation of particular interest to Congress that a number of states have studied with grants