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Home Culture Census Bureau must engage more with undercounted groups, director says

Census Bureau must engage more with undercounted groups, director says

On Jan. 5, Robert Santos became the first person of color in the permanent, Senate-confirmed position of U.S. Census Bureau director. His tenure follows a rocky period during which the Trump administration tried to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census and block undocumented immigrants from being counted for apportionment. The 2020 survey was also roiled by legal battles, pandemic delays and natural disasters.

Before taking the helm at the bureau, the San Antonio native worked for over four decades in survey research and statistical design and analysis, and was most recently vice president and chief methodologist at the Urban Institute and 2021 president of the American Statistical Association. He spoke with The Washington Post about why he took the job and how his Latino background informs his vision for how to lead the bureau. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What made you want this job? It’s been a roller coaster in recent years and I’m curious to know what inspires you to want to do this?

A: There are two things from a career perspective that really drive me. One is my love and passion for statistics and the second is this desire to help people. After 40 years I was ready to begin a soft landing to retirement, and because of the work that I’d been doing I suddenly became a topic of discussion by the transition team in the Biden administration and was approached. I simply could not turn down a request to serve my country. And in particular because of the various leadership positions I’ve had in the statistical community, in the policy world, and in the Latino community, I felt I couldn’t say no. And I thought I could help. I think I’m bringing something different to the Census Bureau from a leadership perspective, and here I am.

Q: What are you bringing that’s different from previous directors?

What I’m bringing is a diverse perspective from a person of color. I’ve lived in a predominantly White industry for over 40 years and I’ve been very successful, and throughout that career there have been instances where my diverse voice, my voice as a Latino based on my life experience and my culture, has made a difference in terms of altering and improving the research that was done. And so I came to the Census Bureau with a desire to help be a catalyst for cultural change in a way that values diversity, inclusion and equity.

Q: How do you want to do that?

A: The first is by being a director that is not directional, that is not someone who gets involved in operations and tells people what to do, but instead is a director who is an enabler, and providing alternative visions to folks about the same problems that they’ve been looking at and the same frameworks and solutions that they’ve been using and saying, “Here’s a different way to look at it.”

Q: Can you give one specific example where you’re saying, “Here’s a different way?”

A: Looking at, say, household income, I think we’ve been asking that question for 30 or 40 years pretty much the same way, yet if you think about it the question was designed in a time period where most adults had jobs in the U.S. that were salary jobs, so you got a monthly salary or a biweekly paycheck. We have evolved over the last 20 years into a society that has a mixture of those types of jobs as well as a vast amount of gig work. And with the economy shifting and evolving the way it has, there are many families, because of low-income households, and poverty and instability and housing and such, where people have to work two or three part time jobs, where they have to do that, plus gig work on the side. And suddenly, this thing of “Oh, I make X amount a month and I just multiply by 12.” Now it’s really, really difficult to calculate how much do you get a year. It’s not as simple, honestly, as saying, “Well, what did I make in the last income tax? What did I file last year?” Because things change a lot from month to month.

2020 Census undercounted Latinos, Blacks and Native Americans, bureau estimates show

Q: The 2020 Census had challenges including Latinos being potentially less inclined to fill it out after the attempts to add a citizenship question, and higher minority undercounts than the previous census. Do you have ideas on how you want to improve these?

A: I think it’s important to talk about trust. The one thing that we are not going to do is simply try harder. We’ve been trying harder for decades, and that has had limited success. Keeping in mind, of course, that the pandemic was just unprecedented and one would naturally expect there to be issues of counting among the most hard-to-count populations.

What I think is needed, especially given the degradation of trust levels among different subpopulations of, say, Latinos and African Americans and such, is a need to shift away and to reinvent this notion of partnerships and stakeholder outreach from one that basically is a point in time, “just in time” methodology of “oh, it’s a couple of years before the census, so let’s round up the usual suspects and see if we can get some participation going,” to one that establishes a permanent, ongoing relationship with communities, with stakeholders, and demonstrates this transactional thing that people don’t really understand, where, yes, we want participation and we expect participation from people that we solicit for surveys and censuses. However, the flip side is that we have really valuable information for your community, for your subpopulation, that will inform how better you can be served, that will inform where you need to put drugstores or grocery stores or fire stations, or schools, so we need to be more deliberate about working with communities, providing data and demonstrating tangible evidence of how this working relationship works. It’s not a one off “we just want data from you”; it’s a two-way type of thing.

Q: So have you changed anything in terms of your approach yet?

A: Thankfully, the Census Bureau in its wonderful vision already started many of these types of things. One of the things it established was a strategic partnership group, and I’m working really closely with them and actively engaging with different partners. I’ve met maybe half a dozen different groups — stakeholder groups, advocacy groups — and simply started talking to them and saying, “Here we are, We understand that there are concerns. Let’s talk about them. Let’s understand where we are and what we can do and what we can’t do.” And it’s been very rewarding to me as a former stakeholder and policy researcher to see the lightbulbs go off in the eyes of stakeholders and community members when I start talking about the value of data and show genuine interest. There was always interest, but having it come from a director that actively is seeking out their input and their visions and their ideas, it’s really rewarding to see the reception that we’re getting. I tell every group that I meet with, this is a beginning, this is not an end.

1950 Census data to be unveiled Friday, after 72 years under wraps

Q: How do you plan to protect the Census Bureau from concerns about political appointees, and politicization, in a way that both protects it now, but also in future?

A: I lead by example, and I will not be appointing any of those spurious additional political appointees that were created at the end of the last administration because I don’t think they’re needed. I think that the career staff and the political appointees I do have quite suffice, and those are the ones that historically have been around. So that’s the first thing.

The second thing is that as the 2020 Census experience demonstrated, the career staff are quite adept at navigating whatever political challenges are sent their way, so I have full confidence that the career staff are going to be able to navigate and prevent meddling and preserve the scientific integrity and objectivity that’s needed in order for it to fulfill its mission.

The third thing is that whatever Congress wants to do is perfectly fine. I mean in their infinite wisdom, they already have bills that are being proposed. And we will work with whatever structure they give to make sure that there is no additional meddling going on, and I have actually informed my career staff, my leadership, and others that anything that I direct them to do is not a direction, it’s a suggestion.


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