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Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues
databases to support research to improve the health of our population as well as to enhance the health of individuals. At the same time, we emphasize that availability of such identifiers is quite different from license to invade the privacy of individuals or disregard the need for strict confidentiality of the information held within medical records. We believe it is possible to reconcile all these goals.
We need to encourage constant conversation between investigators specializing in administrative data and those designing surveys so that the surveys can be used to help inform the interpretation of the administrative data. Survey researchers generally are not familiar with the needs for researchers to be provided with data that have adequate variables for matching. For example, data that tell us about the reasons why clients change service use patterns can be combined with information from administrative data about how often and when these service use patterns change. Furthermore, we must develop better strategies for making survey data available for linking with administrative data. A serious threat to this possibility is the assumption that if it is possible for the confidentiality of a data set to be compromised, it will. This leads to counterproductive strategies such as making it impossible to accurately match samples to their communities or counties of origin (thus obviating the possibility of exploring neighborhood or county effects).
Whereas linked administrative data can provide important information on the impact of welfare reform on child well-being, it is not a panacea and will not provide us with all the information we need to monitor welfare reform. We must be wary of the conclusions we draw from linked data because we often cannot determine whether an individual did not experience the outcome, was recorded as experiencing the outcome but could not be matched across data systems (e.g., if they moved across jurisdictional lines), or experienced the outcome but was not recorded as such. Even when the data are accurate, at best they help us monitor who appears to be affected by welfare reform, when those impacts occur, and where the impact is greatest or least. Sometimes we do not even know the direction of that change. For example, if more children per capita are reported for abuse and neglect under TANF than were reported under JOBS, this could mean that the smaller TANF caseloads have resulted in more opportunities for home visiting and better early identification of child abuse and neglect. As to why welfare reform affects children and families differentially, administrative data can only guide us as to the best places to look for those answers. Carefully designed representative samples can be drawn and subjected to other methods (e.g., surveys) that can build on the framework that a comprehensive administrative data analysis provides.