By Claire Miller

Income surveys are tools that funders use to determine a community’s median household income (MHI), which affects eligibility and terms for grant and loan packages. To ensure confidentiality, most funders require a third-party entity like Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) 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. RCAC technical assistance providers, conduct income surveys.

In August 2020, the U.S. 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 sought 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 percent survey response rate, 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 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, RCAC’s 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:

RCAC’s survey team was 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 to go door-to-door, the team needed another way to connect with all rate payers directly for follow-up. For example, if not all rate payers had email addresses, the survey could not be sent via email. The team also discussed an electronic survey, but neither the agencies nor technical assistance providers 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 percent response rate within 75 days to consider the survey valid, these mail delays were a major hurdle.

Some residents reported that they had lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and had to either retire or receive 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. Staff also worked with community leaders to develop new strategies to generate buy-in and enable timely responses from ratepayers.

While RCAC 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 residents that they knew personally. The community seemed supportive, but time began to run out while RCAC waited for surveys to arrive by mail. To address this issue, RCAC conducted phone interviews with several residents to achieve the 80 percent response rate before the 75-day deadline.

RCAC’s survey 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, the survey was successfully completed before the deadline!

Future considerations

As with many other processes and systems, COVID-19 revealed weaknesses within the 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 access to 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.

Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) is the western agency for the Rural Community Assistance Partnership network. This article ran in RCAP’s A Drop of Knowledge in July 2021.