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Denominator degrees of freedom in svyglm

Attention Conservation Notice: This is a working note; when I understand it better, there will be changes in the survey package.

The design degrees of freedom for a stratified, clustered design with \(M\) clusters and \(H\) strata is \(d=M-H\). This is a straightforward definition, since the Horvitz–Thompson variance estimator for a mean or total is a variance of \(M\) cluster summaries after subtracting off \(H\) stratum means. While the definition is only straightforward for single-stage designs, the public-use versions of nearly all surveys are analysed as if they were single-stage designs.

Suppose we fit a generalised linear model with \(p\) coefficients plus the intercept1 to the design. How many df do we have now? The standard answer is \(d-p\), but it’s more complicated than that.

Let’s break the predictors \(X\) into \((X_1, X_2)\) and assume we want to test the coefficients \(\beta_1\) of \(X_1\). Write \(q\) for the number of columns of \(X_1\).

Rank of variance matrix

The estimated \((p+1)\times (p+1)\) variance matrix \(\hat V=\widehat{\mathrm{cov}}[\hat\beta]\) has rank at most \(d\), so it is singular if \(d\leq p\). Similarly, the covariance matrix of \(\hat\beta_1\) is singular if \(d<q\). In that sense we have at most \(d-q\) residual degrees of freedom.

Cluster-level covariates

If the covariates were all constant within clusters, it would be possible to aggregate everything to the cluster level and do the regression there. There would genuinely be only \(M-H-p=d-p\) degrees of freedom, because the variance matrix of \(\hat\beta\) would be an outer product of \(M\) things projected orthogonal to a space of dimension \(p+H\).

Real life

A test with \(q\) numerator df should have at most \(d-q\) residual df, because of the first point above. It should typically have more than \(d-p\) residual df, depending on how many of the \(p-q\) covariates in \(X_2\) are at the cluster level.

The middle of the sandwich variance estimator is \[\widehat{\textrm{cov}}[\hat\beta]=(X^TW(Y-\mu)P)^{\otimes 2}\] where \(P\) is the projection on to the \(d\)-dimensional space of centered cluster totals. If \(H^\perp=I-H\) is the projection on to the residuals, that’s \[\widehat{\textrm{cov}}[\hat\beta]=(X^TWH^\perp YP)^{\otimes 2}\]

At a simple parameter-counting level, then, the rank of \(\widehat{\textrm{cov}}[\hat\beta]\) is the rank of \(H^\perp P\), ie, \(d\) minus the number of cluster-level covariates. The denominator df for testing \(\beta_1=0\) should be \(d-q\) minus the number of cluster-level covariates in \(X_2\).

To be done

  • In principle, the various modified sandwich estimators that adjust the residuals for influence should be helpful. They won’t be very helpful, because it’s influence at the cluster level that matters most.
  • Ideally you’d want something a bit smoother than the rank of \(H^\perp P\): if a covariate is ‘almost’ cluster-level, we should lose ‘almost’ a degree of freedom.
  • Also, the variance of \(\widehat{\textrm{cov}}[\hat\beta]\) depends on the distribution of both \(X\) and \(Y\) – in contrast to the model-based estimator we don’t really have \(F\) distributions. The variance depends on the distributions mostly through the kurtosis of the cluster-level totals of the influence functions. Unfortunately, if the number of clusters is small (and otherwise we don’t care about residual df) the kurtosis will be poorly estimated.


  • Richard Valliant and Keith Rust have done2 the Satterthwaite approximation calculation for means/totals. For regression models we’d need to do the same thing with the influence functions.
  • Post-stratification/calibration will also use up degrees of freedom, but as with covariates in the model, only when the auxiliary variables are cluster-level
  • The obvious place to do all the computations is inside svyrecvar, since it’s (by design) the one place where the projections on to calibrated, stratum-centered, cluster totals happen. But, at the moment, svyrecvar doesn’t necessarily see influence functions; in fact, svyglm passes it score functions.

  1. the intercept is already aliased with the strata

  2. Valliant & Rust (2010) Journal of Official Statistics 26:585-602