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Studying life in America

June 17, 2015

A recent $52 million contract renewal ensures that Ohio State will continue leading a survey that examines the lives of everyday Americans, which provides invaluable information to social scientists about the way we learn, work, raise our families and more.

Studying life in America

When researchers from around the world want to study the lives of Americans, their first stop is often The Ohio State University.

Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research runs the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth – three separate surveys that have followed more than 30,000 Americans for years, some since 1979.

While the NLS may not be familiar to most people, it is one of the largest and most influential tools available to social scientists, said Randall Olsen, director of Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research.

Participants in the surveys are interviewed at least every two years and asked detailed questions on a variety of topics such as work and work history, educational attainment, training investments, income and assets, health conditions, workplace injuries, insurance, alcohol and substance abuse, sexual activity and marital and fertility histories.

NLS data has helped researchers explain how various levels of education translate into jobs, how poverty impacts child development, the long-term effects of breastfeeding on children and the impact of divorce on people’s wealth.

Researchers have generated more than 8,600 published studies, dissertations and books based on NLS data.

“This is big science,” Olsen said. “Physicists have the Large Hadron Collider. Social scientists have the NLS.”

A recently announced $52 million federal contract renewal means Ohio State will continue running the NLS through November 2019. The funding comes from the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the Department of Labor.

Ohio State has helped administer the NLS since its inception nearly 50 years ago. Overall, the program has brought more than $400 million in funding to Ohio State.

Along with Olsen, the NLS is run by Elizabeth Cooksey, professor of sociology, and Audrey Light, professor of economics. Olsen is retiring from Ohio State in July, at which point Cooksey will be heading the Center for Human Resource Research and the NLS.

“We have followed the same people for so many years, and that really makes the NLS a very unique dataset,” Cooksey said.

“We can see, for example, how a person’s experiences in childhood influence how they do as adults in terms of their relationships, their jobs, their health and many other factors. For many types of studies, these are the best data available.”

Olsen said he sees the NLS providing a great resource as researchers and policymakers grapple with the long-term effects of the Great Recession of 2008.

“Of the people who lost their jobs during the Great Recession, how many of them will be able to get back into the labor force, and how many will never work again? How many will end up earning less in their lifetimes?” Olsen asked.

“These are very important questions, and the only way you can answer them is to track people over long periods of time – which is exactly what the NLS does.”

When the NLS was created in 1966, Olsen said the original idea was to follow the participants for five years. But the payoff was so good, in terms of the data provided, that the federal government agreed to continue. 

“The NLS has not only delivered on its original promise, it has over-delivered,” Olsen said. “It is a real success story.”