Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Big Decline in Survey Participation

This is trouble: it is becoming increasingly difficult to get Americans to respond to surveys. Without the cooperation of the public, survey results are likely to be skewed. The Pew Research Center provides a detailed analysis of the problem in the report Assessing the Representativeness of Public Opinion Surveys.

In 1997, the response rate to surveys was 36 percent. Back then, survey organizations were able to contact a potential respondent in 90 percent of the households called. Among those contacted, 43 percent agreed to be surveyed, for a response rate of 36 percent.

In 2012, the response rate to surveys has dropped to just 9 percent. This happened for two reasons. First, contacting potential respondents is much more difficult because most households screen their calls. Survey organizations now manage to contact potential respondents in only 62 percent of households. Second, fewer potential respondents are willing to participate. Only 14 percent of those contacted now agree to take part in surveys, resulting in the response rate of 9 percent.

The response rate is abysmally low whether a household is contacted by landline or cell phone.

But, says Pew: "Despite declining response rates, telephone surveys that include landlines and cell phones and are weighted to match the demographic composition of the population continue to provide accurate data on most political, social and economic measures."

How does Pew know this? By comparing answers to test survey questions with answers from surveys fielded by the federal government. Large federal surveys get response rates of 75 percent or more. Federal surveys get much higher response rates because of the effort (and dollars) spent doing so, as well as the fact that households are required to participate in many government surveys--such as the American Community Survey. The ACS is the source of demographic and socioeconomic data for the nation, states, metropolitan areas, and local communities. Too bad the House of Representatives voted last week to cut funding for the American Community Survey and make participation voluntary.

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