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Understanding family finances

Posted on 25 June 2015 by Thomas Leach, Researcher .
Tags: children, families, family, family resources survey, poverty, stats, unemployment

Today saw the publication of the Family Resources Survey (FRS) for 2013/14; an annual survey collected by NatCen, Office of National Statistics (ONS) and Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) that produces data on the income, living standards and circumstances of private households in the UK.

The FRS is also the source data for the Households Below Average Income (HBAI) and Pensioners’ Income series, as well as estimates of take-up of income-related benefits. All of which have been released this morning.

The FRS is a unique and important survey that gives us a better understanding of how British families are managing financially. It is vital in helping policymakers understand levels of poverty and  how people use the benefits system.  Moreover, the findings are also of great significance to a number of charities and campaigning groups, especially those with an interest in poverty, as well as researchers and analysts from a wide range of disciplines in both the public and private sector.

With a survey of such importance the precision and accuracy of the data is crucial. It’s not easy to get people to give us details that most of us would ordinarily keep to ourselves and consider private – our earnings, income from savings, benefits we’re claiming etc.

So how do we do it?

A robust, representative sample

In order to account for the fact that things like earnings and income can vary depending on the time of year we collect it over an entire tax year, from April until March. To collect such data is both challenging and time consuming and requires several stages of quality assurance. Fundamental to the data is the quality of the sample. Both in terms of the size, NatCen interviewed over 11,000 households in 2013-14, but also in terms of its representativeness.

Representativeness is crucial because it makes it possible to generalise about the entire UK population living in a range of circumstances; for example single people, families with children to those with caring responsibilities and older people. In order to allow us to be confident that the survey is representative of the population we approach a random sample of addresses using the Royal Mail list of private addresses. Once we have selected an address we work very hard to ensure that someone at that address takes part in the survey (we can’t just knock next door).

Brilliant interviewers

Clearly, collecting this huge amount of data is a major undertaking and this leads nicely on to talking about our interviewers who are responsible for ensuring that we secure an interview with the people at the address we have selected for our survey.

I had the opportunity to shadow an interviewer for a day and it was a really insightful experience. It is not easy to convince people to take the time to do an interview; the FRS interview can take over an hour, so the interviewers need to be able to really sell the survey on the doorstep. It is instructive to see them in action; interviewers are very much the unsung heroes of survey research.

So when you read in your newspaper tomorrow about whether poverty is going up or down or how government chooses to measure child poverty, I hope you will also reflect on the effort that went into collecting this data and getting it right. 

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