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Study retention as bias reduction in a hard-to-reach population

Publication Date:
May 2016
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Authors: Bruce Western, Anthony Braga, David Hureau, Catherine Sirois

Collecting data from hard-to-reach populations is a key challenge for research on poverty and other forms of extreme disadvantage. With data from the Boston Reentry Study (BRS), we document the extreme marginality of released prisoners and the related difficulties of study retention and analysis. Analysis of the BRS data yields three findings. First, released prisoners show high levels of “contact insecurity,” correlated with social insecurity, in which residential addresses and contact information change frequently. Second, strategies for data collection are available to sustain very high rates of study participation. Third, survey nonresponse in highly marginal populations is strongly nonignorable, closely related to social and economic vulnerability. The BRS response rate of 94% over a 1-y follow-up period allows analysis of hypothetically high nonresponse rates. In this setting, nonresponse attenuates regression estimates in analyses of housing insecurity, drug use, and unemployment. These results suggest that in the analysis of very poor and disadvantaged populations, methods that maximize study participation reduce bias and yield data that can usefully supplement large-scale household or administrative data collections.

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