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February 2005, Vol. 128, No.2
The problem of respondent attrition: survey methodology is key
Randall J. Olsen
The central problem of longitudinal surveys is attrition. The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth in 1979 (NLSY79), which this issue of the Monthly Labor Review features, is the gold standard for sample retention against which longitudinal surveys are usually measured. However, we cannot understand how the NLSY79 has done so well without considering what was done differently in the other cohorts of the NLS and what we have learned by formal evaluations of attrition aversion measures that evolved over a quarter century of field work. The lessons here are hard-won and, to some, unconventional.
The NLS began in 1965 at the urging of an Assistant Secretary of Labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He believed that although the Current Population Survey provided crucial snapshots of the Nation’s labor force and labor market, the Nation needed a data source that was more dynamic and capable of tracking the long-run evolution of careers. The task of starting the study went to Howard Rosen at the Department of Labor, who enlisted Herb Parnes from Ohio State University, to assemble a team, design the surveys, and analyze the data. This team comprised representatives from the Census Bureau, Ohio State University, and the Department of Labor.
The original plan was to follow the cohorts for 5 years to study some of the pressing questions of the time—the shrinking labor force participation rate of older men, the problem of youth unemployment and the transition from school to work, and the growing labor force participation of women whose children were entering school, leading to steady growth in the number of working mothers. Childcare was an important issue along with the problem of how the family would pay for a college education for the children of the baby boom.
Over time, the project has expanded. (Table 1 shows the various cohorts of the NLS, their start and stop dates, sizes, and age ranges covered.) Because the project began with a 5-year horizon, neither the Census Bureau, Ohio State, nor the Department of Labor had a plan for sample retention over the long run; after all, longitudinal surveys were still quite rare. The studies shortly proved their worth and the project became open-ended in terms of duration. However, the original limitations on intended duration led to some problems with attrition that conflicted with a revised plan to follow the respondents over the balance of their lives. In particular, the "following-rule"1 that the Census Bureau used specified that when a respondent missed two consecutive interviews, the Census Bureau would drop that respondent from the study.
This excerpt is from an article published in the February 2005 issue of the Monthly Labor Review. The full text of the article is available in Adobe Acrobat's Portable Document Format (PDF). See How to view a PDF file for more information.
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1 This is the rule determining to which respondents interviewers would return in the event the respondent did not complete one or more interviews.
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