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Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues
of people who are having difficulty. In its most recent report on poverty, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that people who worked at any time during 1998 had a lower poverty rate than nonworkers (6.3 percent compared with 21.1 percent). The Census Bureau also recently reported that 16.3 percent of all people in the United States were without health insurance for the entire year of 1998, but that 32.3 percent of poor people were in that category (Campbell, 1999).
Of interest to the survey community are the statistics cited by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt about access to communication services in the United States. Of households on food stamps, roughly 30 percent have telephone service. In 1993, 27 percent of households with children and below the poverty line did not have phone service. About 12 percent of unemployed adults did not have phone service.
This lack of telephone service shows the importance of expanding the mode of data collection for low-income persons beyond telephone surveys. Nonresponse rates by income type show that refusals are lowest for low-income populations (Groves and Couper, 1998). However, those who are not contacted in surveys are clustered among those who are in the low-income groups. Groves and Couper show that in areas of high population density, more than 6 percent of the population were not contacted. In central cities, 7.2 percent were not contacted. When homeownership was below 48.5 percent, 4.9 percent were not contacted. In areas where minorities made up more than 8 percent of the population, the noncontact rate was 3.6 percent or higher. Therefore, when looking at income distributions, the high end would be underrepresented primarily because of refusals and the low income would be underrepresented because of noncontacts. If the low-income population is approached only by telephone, the nonresponse rates would be even higher because of the lower incidence of telephones among this population.
In-person efforts will be critical to achieving high response rates for people who have no usual residence, those who move frequently, those who have no telephones, and those who need some immediate gratification before they agree to be interviewed. Often, concepts and ideas can be explained easier when face to face.
The low-income populations of interest in surveys present some special challenges. They are often hard to find. Though they may have lived at a fixed address at one time, low-income people move often, mostly within the same neighborhood, but not always. Sometimes they live in regular housing until their money runs out, then live on the streets until the next influx of money. A survey organization must be prepared to spend resources locating respondents. Low-income respondents are often suspicious of strangers and the government. Often they do not want to be found. Names are not always given freely, nor are responses to where people can be found. In National Opinion Research Center (NORC) surveys, a common problem is that it is hard to make and keep appointments with potential respondents.