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


  • Katharine G. Abraham
  • Sara E. Helms
  • Stanley Presser


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.

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  • Katharine G. Abraham & Sara E. Helms & Stanley Presser, 2008. "How Social Processes Distort Measurement: The Impact of Survey Nonresponse on Estimates of Volunteer Work," NBER Working Papers 14076, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:14076
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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Katharine G. Abraham & Aaron Maitland & Suzanne M. Bianchi, 2006. "Non-response in the American Time Use Survey: Who Is Missing from the Data and How Much Does It Matter?," NBER Technical Working Papers 0328, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Melenberg, Bertrand & van Soest, Arthur, 1996. "Parametric and Semi-parametric Modelling of Vacation Expenditures," Journal of Applied Econometrics, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 11(1), pages 59-76, Jan.-Feb..
    3. Knack, Stephen, 1992. "Civic norms, social sanctions and voting turnout," MPRA Paper 28080, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    4. Willard G. Manning Jr. & Charles E. Phelps, 1979. "The Demand for Dental Care," Bell Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 10(2), pages 503-525, Autumn.
    5. Duan, Naihua, et al, 1983. "A Comparison of Alternative Models for the Demand for Medical Care," Journal of Business & Economic Statistics, American Statistical Association, vol. 1(2), pages 115-126, April.
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    Cited by:

    1. Ann Meier & Kelly Musick & Sarah Flood & Rachel Dunifon, 2016. "Mothering Experiences: How Single Parenthood and Employment Structure the Emotional Valence of Parenting," Demography, Springer;Population Association of America (PAA), vol. 53(3), pages 649-674, June.
    2. Griffin, John & Nickerson, David & Wozniak, Abigail, 2012. "Racial differences in inequality aversion: Evidence from real world respondents in the ultimatum game," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 84(2), pages 600-617.
    3. Tiago Freire & Xiaoye Li, 2013. "How Immigration Reduced Social Capital in the US: 2005-2011," ERSA conference papers ersa13p1285, European Regional Science Association.
    4. Ori Heffetz & Matthew Rabin, 2013. "Conclusions Regarding Cross-Group Differences in Happiness Depend on Difficulty of Reaching Respondents," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 103(7), pages 3001-3021, December.
    5. Hamrick, Karen S., 2012. "Nonresponse Bias Analysis of Body Mass Index in the Eating and Health Module," Technical Bulletins 184303, United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.

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    JEL classification:

    • J01 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - General - - - Labor Economics: General

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