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Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues
Using administrative data to evaluate welfare reform presents challenges and opportunities within each of the domains of child well-being. Child abuse and neglect data generally are available to the evaluation of welfare reform because both child welfare records and TANF data sets typically reside within the same governmental department at the local and state levels. However, developing appropriate measures of child well-being from administrative child welfare requires intricate programming of longitudinal data files: understanding of the differences between the child’s experience and the system performance indicators; expertise with a range of sophisticated analysis methods; and understanding of many interpretations that administrative data might allow. In contrast, health measures of child well-being—for example, birthweight or immunization completeness—are more uniformly defined and there is more agreement about their implications. However, these data are less available to study welfare reform because they typically reside within government entities separate from departments where welfare data reside. When these data sources differ, issues of compatibility of data formats and definitions, linking of data, confidentiality, and ownership of data files call for collaborative efforts to evaluate welfare reform. Evaluation of impacts within juvenile justice and education include particularly acute challenges of data availability, as well as the need to create valid and reliable measures.
The authors of this paper have endeavored to increase readers’ familiarity with needed indicators of child well-being and the administrative data sets that contain them. A secondary goal has been to alert readers to the ways that existing policies hamper access to the data necessary to make informed decisions. Obtaining permission to use administrative data for evaluation purposes is harder than it needs to be. Without substantial convergence around the purposes of using administrative data, this emerging technology is going to be a partial, piecemeal, and ephemeral aid to government. The technical solutions for linking are increasing (storage is more affordable, processing times are shorter, and matching software is better), but public support has not been built to encourage this linking. Issues of data access and confidentiality present the greatest barriers to full utilization of this resource.
Although the federal government is demanding more accountability from the states, and the states from the counties, there is little outcry from public officials to permit the broader use of administrative data to generate the information required to track the performance of human service agencies. Scandinavian countries are generating invaluable research using linked data across generations to understand, for example, the transmission of schizophrenia across generations and the likelihood that children born with birth defects will give birth to children with birth defects. Similarly, program participation data have been combined with information from driving records, educational attainment, military service,