Navigating Income Surveys During COVID-19

July 13, 2021 | General RCAP News

By Claire Miller, Technical Assistance Provider, RCAC 

Income surveys are tools that funders use to determine a community’s median household income (MHI), which affects eligibility and favorability of terms for grant and loan packages. To ensure confidentiality, most funders require a third-party entity like the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC), the western RCAP, to conduct the survey. Income surveys usually happen in two phases: a paper survey mailed to rate payers’ homes, followed by at least one round of door-to-door interviews with households that did not respond by mail. As an RCAC technical assistance provider, I’ve helped to conduct income surveys. 

In August 2020, the US Department of Agriculture Rural Development (USDA RD) asked RCAC to perform an income survey in Panhandle Village, a very small community near Rathdrum, Idaho. Panhandle Village was seeking infrastructure funding from USDA RD and the Idaho Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program to update its drinking water distribution system.  

There were 50 active residential water connections at Panhandle Village, and CDBG requires an 80% response rate for the survey, based on system size. This high response rate is often hard to achieve. To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic made it unsafe for technical assistance providers (TAPs) and community members to travel and complete the door-to-door interviews. These interviews are often critical to collect the required number of survey responses, and RCAC has not conducted many income surveys of this size without needing to go door to door.  

Nevertheless, the RCAC staff put their heads together to develop a methodology that would satisfy the funding agencies and gather the necessary responses.  

Pandemic-Specific Problems 

COVID-19 presented several challenges to conducting the income survey: 

  • We were unable to host public meetings to answer questions about the survey and the process. Doing public outreach early and often is critical for generating survey participation, and in-person presentations are traditionally the most effective way to garner local support.  
  • Without the option of going door-to-door, we needed another way to connect with all rate payers directly for follow-up. For example, if not all rate payers had email addresses, we could not send the survey via email. The team also discussed an electronic survey, but neither the agencies nor TAPs had a framework or format to perform secure online income surveys, so that was not feasible. The issue with access remained, as not every home had internet access.  
  • COVID-19 also impacted the U.S. Postal Service and, for many reasons, caused serious delays in mail delivery. Since CDBG requires an 80% response rate within 75 days to consider the survey valid, these mail delays were a major hurdle.  
  • Some residents reported they had lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and had either retired or begun receiving unemployment. This meant their reported income for the previous year was not representative of their current or expected future income.  

Creative, Collaborative Solutions 

RCAC worked closely with funders to identify creative solutions that would yield a valid survey. We also worked with community leaders to develop new strategies to generate buy-in and enable timely responses from ratepayers.  

While I worked in close communication with Panhandle Village representatives to track survey responses and focus local outreach to non-responders, the water system’s board members reached out to people they knew personally. The community seemed supportive, but time began to run out while we waited for surveys to arrive by mail. To address this issue, I conducted phone interviews with several residents to achieve the 80% response rate before the 75-day deadline.   

Our team also sent out three rounds of mailers (instead of just one) with an extra week built into the deadline, to accommodate mail delivery delays. The funders adjusted their requirements to support phone interviews in lieu of door-to-door interviews. Lastly, community leaders made phone calls and went to the homes of people they knew to encourage residents to complete the survey.  

Thanks to these combined efforts and solutions, we succeeded in conducting a valid survey before the deadline!   

Future Considerations 

As with many other processes and systems, COVID-19 revealed weaknesses within the standard median household income (MHI) process. Fillable forms or online surveys may be a future option, although they need to be considered alongside lack of internet access and the ability to maintain confidentiality. Many rural areas do not have broadband or any access to the internet. Even in communities with internet access, like Panhandle Village, many residents do not have internet in their homes. Equitable access to the internet ought to be considered when evaluating traditional mail and in-person income survey alternatives.