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Lessons Learned From the National Survey of America's Families

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Released online: December 07, 2006

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in PDF Format.

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Executive Summary

The Assessing the New Federalism (ANF) project of the Urban Institute and its partner, Child Trends, analyzed the experiences of low-income families and children over the past decade
during major shifts in the nation’s social welfare policies. The cornerstone of the ANF project was the National Survey of America’s Families (NSAF), a survey of the economic, health, and social characteristics of children, adults under the age of 65, and their families.

The NSAF charted new territory by asking new questions, devising new methods of collecting data, and developing advanced estimating techniques. Over the course of a decade, NSAF data has generated nearly 500 ANF publications, plus dozens of journal articles, book chapters, research presentations, and many published and unpublished analyses by public users of the data. The $40 million spent to conduct three rounds of the survey marked an unusual commitment of more than a dozen private philanthropic resources to a large survey and proved an efficient use of funds. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, by comparison, spent $36 million in 2002 to conduct one year of the Current Population Survey (CPS).

This report summarizes the pioneering steps and major accomplishments of the methodology used to complete the NSAF, while identifying key challenges and important lessons for future household surveys. This report aims to present this information so audiences with a range of perspectives—including survey designers, researchers and academics, funders, and policymakers—may draw new insights in survey techniques from the NSAF experiences.

Conducted in three rounds—1997, 1999, and 2002—to gather information on more than 100,000 people and more than 40,000 families across the country, the NSAF gives researchers the tools to track national trends during that period, drawing on unusually detailed and comprehensive information about low-income parents and their children. In addition, the NSAF provided significant samples in 13 states with a broad range of fiscal capacity, indicators of child well-being, and approaches to government programs. Using the NSAF, a researcher can compare outcomes for low-income families living in states with very different circumstances and policies.

State snapshots were not possible before 1997, since other major national household samples—such as the Current Population Survey—were not state-representative. While the CPS and the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) had large representative samples, neither met the project's needs because of limitations on content and the sample size of low-income families.

Future major surveys intended to inform low-income policy should build on what the NSAF taught those most closely involved in its design, implementation, and analysis. Close collaboration between policy and survey design experts proved essential, as did having flexibility to experiment when designing the best ways to enhance survey response. Both strategies work especially well in a multi-wave study like the NSAF, which offers the opportunity to learn from the experience of one wave to design the next. Specific to NSAF, both strategies were enhanced by the absence of procedural barriers and by the flexibility of a nongovernment survey. However, both lessons could be modified for a government setting.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in PDF Format.



Topics/Tags: | Children and Youth | Families and Parenting | Poverty, Assets and Safety Net


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