Respondent Perceptions of Sensitive Items on a Self-Administered Application Form

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 09:00
Oral Presentation
Jessica GRABER, U.S. Census Bureau, USA
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), along with state agencies, administers the National School Lunch Program, which is then operated by local school districts or other organizations. Families requesting free or low-cost school meals are required to complete an application that collects detailed information on who lives in the applicant’s household and all income received. USDA develops and makes available to States a prototype application with required data items. States and local school districts may choose to use this or develop their own forms, as long as the required elements are included. While not provided informed consent, applicants typically have expectations that their data will be protected and used for the purpose it was intended.

The Center for Survey Measurement (CSM) at the U.S. Census Bureau was asked to review and test the USDA application to identify specific examples of question items, concepts, terminology, or form design that might lead to respondent confusion and subsequent reporting error. CSM conducted more than 100 cognitive interviews with English and Spanish-speaking respondents in five states and the District of Columbia.

As part of this effort, respondents were asked directly if any items on the application were considered sensitive. They also described the process and any concerns with receiving, completing, and returning the application. Some results were predictable; for example, respondents consider income or partial Social Security Number to be highly sensitive. However, our interviews also captured unexpected reactions. Respondents questioned the need for specific information being collected and how it pertained to the school meals program. This lack of understanding led to intentional misreporting by respondents. It was clear that some data items, while perhaps not necessarily considered sensitive in a different context, became so in this one as their need was not well communicated.