Finances received and managed by individuals with disabling psychiatric conditions, who may rely on federal financial benefits, are an important indicator of personal well-being and access to resources, as well as a measure of the impact of programs targeting the needs of this population. Standardized psychosocial assessments routinely include measures of income or financial status in overall evaluations of functioning and treatment planning. Indeed, the measurement of income is ubiquitous across the social sciences, and is fundamental in studies of welfare, poverty, public policy, and related issues. The efficacy of the national welfare program has been evaluated by financial outcomes largely derived by survey data (Hotz and Sholz, 2001); the U.S. Census and other surveys of income have both informed allocation of federal support services, and provided information about program success.
Individually and nationally, the impact of the decisions based upon income survey data from financially disadvantaged persons mandates accurate and reliable measurement of target variables. However, measuring income can be remarkably difficult, and results often are inaccurate. Details about personal finances frequently are derived by retrospective personal account, requiring individuals to recall total income and expenses in various domains over a specified period of time. There is considerable evidence that individuals receiving benefits income have difficulty with basic financial facts that are even simpler than recalling and compiling income and expenses over the preceding month. Lynn et al. (2004)
described rates as high as 50% of respondents under-reporting income when data were collected by survey from low-income beneficiaries. Rosen et al. (2007)
noted benefits income claimed by a large proportion of surveyed homeless individuals was inaccurate when compared to Social Security Administration payment records. Among low-income respondents, substantial discrepancy was observed in self-reported receipt of benefits services provided two weeks apart (Reichert and Kindelberger, 2000
). In that study, having income in the poverty range was positively related to response variance.
Heuristics used by respondents to provide retrospective personal information lead to inaccurate accounts due to systematic cognitive biases and error (Hufford and Shiffman, 2003
). Responses may be overly influenced by most recent or most memorable events during the target time period, and therefore may not represent true values (Mathiowetz et al., 2001
; Stull et al., 2009
). Additionally, respondents may misjudge the timing of a remote event, such as receipt of income or accrual of expense, and erroneously report its occurrence during the target timeframe (telescoping error; Bradburn et al., 1987
; Mathiowetz et al., 2001
). A problem in asking respondents their income over a period of time and then their expenses over that same period of time is that they may try to derive values for both categories that agree. This phenomenon was observed in a survey of single mothers receiving welfare benefits who tended to underestimate expenses to match reported low income (Edin and Lein, 1997
Other sources of error and bias in self-report of finances include underreporting of sensitive or illegal behavior related to money acquisition or exchange, and the difficulty of recalling often complex and variable patterns of income and financial transactions (Mathiowetz et al., 2001
To elicit accurate retrospective data, event history calendars have been more effective than standard survey methods (Martyn and Belli, 2002
). Timeline follow-back (TLFB) is an interview technique that incorporates reference to a calendar to cue accurate recall of the daily occurrence of events over a specific time period. The technique has provided desirable test-retest reliability for retrospective self-reports of alcohol use (Sobell et al., 1979
) and has been extended to self-reports of other behaviors including smoking (Lewis-Esquerre et al., 2005
) psychoactive substance use (Fals-Stewart et al., 2000
), residential stability and homelessness (Tsemberis et al., 2007
), and sexual risk behavior (Weinhardt et al., 2002
In this study, we tested the performance of a new assessment of personal finances designed to improve measurement with adults with psychiatric issues, and applicable to those receiving federal financial support. The instrument, entitled “Timeline Historical Review of Income and Financial Transactions” (THRIFT), includes content from an unpublished assessment-as-usual (AAU) personal budgeting questionnaire, and incorporates TLFB and additional prompts to improve recall. We compared the test-retest reliability of responses on the THRIFT to those elicited by the AAU questionnaire in a sample of adults with psychiatric and substance use issues receiving Social Security financial benefits, hypothesizing that responses would be more reliable with the THRIFT.