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Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues
for answers was less urgent in the days of paper forms and files. Paper files made it difficult and costly to access information and to summarize it in a useful form. Inappropriate disclosure was difficult because of the inaccessibility of the forms. It was also unlikely because the forms were controlled directly by public servants with an interest in the protection of their clients.
Computer technology has both increased the demand for data by making it easier to get and increased the dangers of inappropriate disclosure because of the ease of transmitting digital information. Continued advances in computer technology are providing researchers and others with the capabilities to manipulate multiple data sets with hundreds of thousands (in some cases, millions) of individual records. These data sets allow for sophisticated and increasingly reliable evaluations of the outcomes of public programs, and nearly all evaluations of welfare reform involve the extensive use of administrative data. The benefits in terms of better programs and better program management could be substantial. At the same time, the linking of data sets necessitates access to individual-level data with personal identifiers or other characteristics, which leads to an increased risk of disclosure. Thus, the weighing of benefits versus harms must now contend with the possibilities of great benefits versus substantial harms.
The regulatory and legal framework for dealing with privacy and confidentiality has evolved enormously over the past 30 years to meet some of the challenges posed by computerization, but it has not dealt directly with the issues facing researchers and evaluators. There is a good deal of literature on the laws and regulations governing data sharing for program administration, much of which presupposes limiting access to these data for just program administration in order to avoid or at least limit unwanted disclosures. Unfortunately, little has been said in the literature regarding the use of such data for research and evaluation, particularly in circumstances where these analyses are carried out by researchers and others from “outside” organizations that have limited access to administrative data. Because research and evaluation capabilities generally are limited by tight staffing at all levels of government, researchers and evaluators from universities and private nonprofit research organizations are important resources for undertaking evaluations and research on social programs. Through their efforts, these organizations contribute to improving the administration of social welfare programs, but they are not directly involved in program administration. Therefore, these organizations may be prevented from obtaining administrative data by laws that only allow the data to be used for program administration.
The problem is even more complex when evaluations require the use of administrative data from other public programs (e.g., Medicaid, Food Stamp Program, UI) whose program managers are unable or unwilling to share data with social welfare program administrators, much less outside researchers. To undertake evaluations of social welfare programs, researchers often need to link individual-level information from multiple administrative data sets to understand