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Categories: Featured Articles, Newsletter, Newsletter Issue 2016:4

No Shortage of Data: A Health Economist at the U.S. Census Bureau

Victoria Udalova
U.S. Census Bureau

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2015, after completing my Ph.D. in economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I started my career as a health economist at the U.S. Census Bureau. The Census Bureau collects data on a wide range of demographic, social, economic, and housing characteristics of the U.S. population in its various surveys and censuses. Census is a very large agency with many areas, but all share a common goal of producing high quality data. I first started as an economist in the Social, Economic, and Housing Statistics Division where, in addition to conducting independent research, I managed the production of the health insurance content of the Survey of Income and Program Participation. In this role, I learned about the development of survey questions, testing of survey instruments, and reviewing and editing of raw data before public release. I was also able to observe survey data collection first hand when I shadowed a Census field representative as she interviewed households for a survey. I enjoyed being behind the scenes and learning the survey production process while simultaneously conducting research using these datasets.

I have since transitioned to the Center for Administrative Records Research and Applications (CARRA) within Census. CARRA is charged with the strategic re-use of information from third-party data providers as well as federal, state, and local agencies. Researchers within CARRA link these datasets to conduct new research that would not have been otherwise possible.

While some Census surveys collect data on self-reported health status and ask disability questions, they collect only limited data on health care utilization, health history, and clinical measures of health. CARRA is actively working on the acquisition of electronic health records and Medicare claims data that will help to fill this void. These datasets can be linked to current and historic data from the American Community Survey, Current Population Survey, the Survey of Income and Program Participation, and the Decennial Census, as well as to administrative records on programs such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Women, Infants and Children. The linked datasets will allow researchers to examine the connections between health, health care utilization, and various demographic, social, economic and housing characteristics as well as to study the effects of these factors on health disparities.

As CARRA is continually acquiring new datasets to be linked with existing internal data, this is an exciting time for empirical researchers. There is lots of room for individual creativity and innovation in research as well as methods for linking datasets while protecting individual confidentiality. CARRA researchers typically enjoy the benefit of being the first ones to analyze new datasets, previously unavailable to researchers. In addition to independent research, we also engage in service work (directed research), such as evaluating the quality of a survey data set by comparing it to newly available administrative records datasets.

I enjoy being one of many Census researchers – not just economists, but sociologists, statisticians, and demographers – who are excited about the work they do. It is common for Census researchers to collaborate among themselves as well as with outside researchers. For example, Census researchers can invite their collaborators to visit Census for up to five days during summer through the Summer at Census program. This is a great way to strengthen existing collaborative relationships and to establish new ones. Census economists are also expected to publish in peer-reviewed journals and present at internal seminars and outside conferences.

For an empirically-minded individual interested in conducting health research, Census offers a wealth of data, some only available internally. To learn more about working at Census, please visit: census.gov/research/researchers. For a list of past Summer at Census scholars, please visit: census.gov/research/summer_at_census. To learn more about Census data linkage infrastructure, please visit: census.gov/datalinkage.

Census jobs are limited to U.S. citizens only.