Even more challenging, however, are the complex questions about privacy and confidentiality that arise in using individual-level data. The underlying concern motivating these questions is the possibility of inappropriate disclosures of personal information that could adversely affect an individual or a family. Such fear is greatest with respect to disclosure of conditions that may lead to social stigma, such as unemployment, mental illness, or HIV infection.
In this paper we consider ways to facilitate researchers’ access to administrative data collected about individuals and their families in the course of providing public benefits. In most cases, applicants to social welfare programs are required to disclose private information deemed essential to determining eligibility for those programs. Individuals who are otherwise eligible for services but who refuse to provide information may be denied those services. Most people forgo privacy in these circumstances; that is, they decide to provide personal information in order to obtain public benefits. They believe that they have little choice but to provide the requested information. Consequently, it is widely agreed that the uses of this information should be limited through confidentiality restrictions to avoid unwanted disclosures about the lives of those who receive government services.
Yet this information is crucial for evaluating the impacts of programs and for finding ways to improve them. Making the 1996 welfare reforms work, for example, requires that we know what happens to families as they use TANF, food stamps, the child support enforcement system, Medicaid, child protective services, and employment benefits such as the UI system. In this fiscally conservative political environment, many program administrators feel using administrative data from these programs is the only way to economically carry out the required program monitoring. Program administrators believe that they are being “asked to do more with less” and that administrative data are an inexpensive and reliable substitute for expensive survey and other primary data collection projects.
How, then, should we use administrative data? Guidance in thinking about the proper way to use them comes from other circumstances in which individuals are required to forgo a certain degree of privacy in order to collect important information. These situations include the decennial census, public health efforts to control the spread of communicable diseases, as well as the information collected on birth certificates. Underlying each of these situations is a determination that the need for obtaining, recording, and using the information outweighs the individual’s privacy rights. At the same time, substantial efforts go into developing elaborate safeguards to prevent improper disclosures.
Administrators of public programs must, therefore, weigh the public benefits of collecting and using information versus the private harms that may occur from its disclosure. The crucial questions are the following: What data should be collected? Who should have access to it? Under what conditions should someone have access? Answering these questions always has been difficult, but the need