How Social Processes Distort Measurement: The Impact of Survey Nonresponse on Estimates of Volunteer Work

47 Pages Posted: 12 Jun 2008 Last revised: 19 Jun 2021

See all articles by Katharine G. Abraham

Katharine G. Abraham

University of Maryland - Joint Program in Survey Methodology and Department of Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Sara Helms

Samford University

Stanley Presser

University of Maryland - Department of Sociology

Date Written: June 2008

Abstract

Estimates of volunteering in the United States vary greatly from survey to survey and do not show the decline over time common to other measures of social capital. We argue that these anomalies are caused by the social processes that determine survey participation, in particular the propensity of people who do volunteer work to respond to surveys at higher rates than those who do not do volunteer work. Thus surveys with lower responses rates will usually have higher proportions of volunteers, and the decline in response rates over time likely has led to increasing overrepresentation of volunteers. We analyze data from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) -- the sample for which is drawn from Current Population Survey (CPS) respondents -- together with data from the CPS Volunteering Supplement to demonstrate the effects of survey nonresponse on estimates of volunteering activity and its correlates. CPS respondents who become ATUS respondents report much more volunteering in the CPS than those who become ATUS nonrespondents. This difference is replicated within demographic and other subgroups. Consequently, conventional statistical adjustments for nonresponse cannot correct the resulting bias. Although nonresponse leads to estimates of volunteer activity that are too high, it generally does not affect inferences about the characteristics associated with volunteer activity. We discuss the implications of these findings for the study of other phenomena.

Suggested Citation

Abraham, Katharine G. and Helms, Sara and Presser, Stanley, How Social Processes Distort Measurement: The Impact of Survey Nonresponse on Estimates of Volunteer Work (June 2008). NBER Working Paper No. w14076, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1143987

Katharine G. Abraham (Contact Author)

University of Maryland - Joint Program in Survey Methodology and Department of Economics ( email )

College Park, MD 20742
United States

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Sara Helms

Samford University ( email )

800 Lakeshore Drive
Birmingham, AL 35229
United States

Stanley Presser

University of Maryland - Department of Sociology ( email )

2103 Art and Sociology Building
Rm. 4127
College Park, MD 20742
United States
301-314-7836 (Phone)

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