Research / BFI Working PaperJan 20, 2022

What Leads to Measurement Errors? Evidence from Reports of Program Participation in Three Surveys

Pablo A. Celhay, Bruce Meyer, Nikolas Mittag

Measurement errors are often a large source of bias in survey data. Lack of knowledge of the determinants of such errors makes it difficult for data producers to reduce the extent of errors and for data users to assess the validity of analyses using the data. We study the determinants of reporting error using high quality administrative data on government transfers linked to three major U.S. surveys. Our results support several theories of misreporting: Errors are related to event recall, forward and backward telescoping, salience of receipt, the stigma of reporting participation in welfare programs and respondent’s degree of cooperation with the survey overall. We provide evidence on how survey design choices affect reporting errors. Our findings help survey users to gauge the reliability of their data and to devise estimation strategies that can correct for systematic errors, such as instrumental variable approaches. Understanding survey errors allows survey producers to reduce them by improving survey design. Our results indicate that survey producers should take into account that higher response rates as well as collecting more detailed information may have negative effects on survey accuracy.

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