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Census Overhauls Poverty and Well-Being Study

This week the U.S. Census Bureau launched an overhaul of one of its longitudinal surveys used to evaluate poverty, family well-being, and educational attainment to inform federal programs.

Unlike most Census cross-sectional studies, the Survey of Income and Program Participation tracks the economic healh of families over a four-year period to provide nuanced data about how income, family relationships, health and childcare expenses, and educational attainment affect families' well-being over time.

The new cycle will begin with visits to 52,000 households nationwide from February to May. The Census has reduced the frequency of family interviews from every four months to annually and redesigned the survey's questions to integrate different topics.

"The Census Bureau has spent the past five years redesigning the survey from the ground up in an effort to decrease respondent burden while saving taxpayer dollars," said Jason Fields, the survey's director, in a statement on the change.

The launch should come as a relief to education researchers, as the SIPP was nearly eliminated in budget cuts in 2006. Though it is used extensively by researchers and federal agencies alike to evaluate participation in federal programs and study the effects of income on health, education, and careers, it is one of the bureau's more expensive and time-intensive surveys.

Yet the longitudinal data provide some interesting insights. For example, one 2012 working paper based on the survey found that children whose mothers worked when the child was under 5 years old were more likely to work themselves as adults than were children with stay-at-home moms, but their incomes were not significantly different. A more recent study looked at how the education experiences of immigrant families before coming to the United States affected their economic status once they moved to the country.

It will be interesting to see how the changes to the design and timing of the SIPP affect how quickly researchers and educators can use its data.

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