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The Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) is a continuous panel survey of samples of people aged fifteen and older who reside in households or noninstitutional group quarters (e.g., college dormitories, rooming houses). Each sample person is asked to provide information every four months for a period of three to four years. Information is also gathered for people who join a SIPP sample member’s household and for children in the household. The U.S. Census Bureau collects, processes, and disseminates SIPP data. SIPP began in fall 1983 and is scheduled to undergo a major re-engineering beginning with a panel introduced in 2011 or 2012.
SIPP’s origins date to the late 1960s when government program analysts became increasingly dissatisfied with the available information on household income, assets, tax liabilities, and participation in public assistance programs. A proposal in 1970 for a new income survey led to the inauguration in 1975 of the Income Survey Development Program (ISDP) in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services). The ISDP carried out four major field tests, of which the largest and most complex was the 1979 Research Panel.
Plans to implement the full SIPP, under the sponsorship of the Social Security Administration, were derailed when funding for the program was deleted from the federal budget in 1981. The new Census Bureau director, Bruce Chapman, convinced the Reagan administration to revive SIPP at the Census Bureau. The 1984 SIPP panel began in fall 1983; it followed adult members of about 21,000 original sample households every four months for eight or nine waves of interviewing (thirty-two to thirty-six months). Another SIPP panel began each February from 1985 through 1993. A hiatus occurred until April 1996 when a new four-year panel began, followed in 2001 by a three-year panel and in 2004 by a planned four-year panel. The 1990 and 1996-2004 panels oversampled households expected to have low incomes.
The first decade of SIPP was difficult. Budget cuts necessitated reductions in sample size or in the number of interviews, or both, for the 1984-1991 panels. Conversion from paper-and-pencil to computer-assisted personal interviewing (CAPI) drove a decision to forego new panels after 1993 until 1996, when the survey design changed. Instead of an overlapping design with two or three panels in the field at the same time, SIPP adopted an abutting panel design in which one panel ends before another begins.
Content and Design Features
SIPP’s primary purpose is to provide detailed information on the economic situation of people in the United States. The core questionnaire in each wave asks about demographic characteristics, amounts for over seventy sources of cash income and in-kind benefits, health insurance coverage, and labor force activity (most items are asked on a monthly basis). Topical modules included once or twice in each panel cover assets and liabilities, income taxes paid, annual income, program eligibility, and personal histories. A module with variable content included once in each panel to meet the needs of federal agencies has ranged over many topics, including child-care expenses, health-care use, housing costs, child support, and extended measures of well-being.
SIPP has a true panel design in that original sample members are followed for the life of their panel, even if they change addresses, thus permitting longitudinal analysis with the core data. The current abutting design permits longer panels with larger sample sizes than the original overlapping design.
The primary products from SIPP are data files that are available via the Internet. For every panel, the Census Bureau produces files for the core data for each wave and topical module, and a longitudinal file for the entire panel. The Census Bureau also publishes occasional reports from SIPP on such topics as child-care arrangements, changes in poverty status and well-being, and the financial return to schooling. Generally, the release of data files lags considerably behind the completion of data collection for a wave or an entire panel.
Advantages and Disadvantages
SIPP is an immensely rich source of data on the social and economic characteristics of the U.S. household population and how people’s living situations change over a three- to four-year window. Researchers have used the core SIPP data to study spells of poverty and participation in public assistance programs within and across years, the extent to which people rely on multiple assistance programs at the same time or in sequence over time, and family composition changes (for example, the likelihood of young adults leaving and moving back to their parents’ households). Researchers have used the topical module data for analyses of many issues of public policy concern.
SIPP data must be used with caution for three main reasons. First is the increasing loss of original sample members over the life of a panel, which not only is greater for low-income households and some other groups, but also has been worsening across successive panels. Thus, 32 to 33 percent of the 1996 and 2001 panels were lost by wave nine, compared with 22 percent of the 1984 panel. Second, a “seam bias” affects the monthly core data; it results because people most often report a transition, such as moving onto or off the food stamp program, at the time of the preceding interview and not within the four-month recall period of the current interview. Finally, the SIPP data are complex and difficult to use. Researchers are urged to consult carefully the file documentation, the SIPP Users Guide, and the SIPP Quality Profile and to contact other knowledgeable users.
Compared with the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a heavily used longitudinal survey that began in 1968, the 2004 SIPP sample is almost six times larger, and it provides intrayear data. However, SIPP has a much shorter window of observation. Compared with the Current Population Survey (CPS) Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC), the source of official income and poverty statistics, SIPP has much more information and supports short-term longitudinal analyses that the CPS cannot. However, the CPS ASEC has over twice as large a sample as the 2004 SIPP panel, is released promptly, and is relatively easy to use.
- Citro, Constance F., and Graham Kalton, eds. 1993. The Future of the Survey of Income and Program Participation. Panel to Evaluate the Survey of Income and Program Participation,Committee on National Statistics, National Research Council. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
- David, Martin H., ed. 1983. Technical, Conceptual, and Administrative Lessons of the Income Survey Development Program (ISDP): Papers Presented at a Conference. New York: Social Science Research Council.
- S. Bureau of the Census. Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). http://www.bls.census.gov/sipp/.
- S. Bureau of the Census. 1998. Survey of Income and Program Participation Quality Profile. 3rd. ed. SIPP Working Paper 230. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census.
- S. Bureau of the Census. 2001. Survey of Income and Program Participation Users’ Guide. 3rd ed. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census.
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