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New Director Hopes to Give the Census Bureau a Human Face

The public’s relationship with the Census was strained by the unique circumstances surrounding the 2020 count. Robert Santos, the first Latino to direct the Census Bureau, wants to repair this.

Census Bureau Director Robert Santos.
Census Director Robert Santos.
(U.S. Census Bureau)
The 2020 Census was conducted during an unprecedented cultural moment that included a historic public health emergency, interference from the executive branch and social media outlets weaponized by conspiracy theorists and foreign actors to spread misinformation.

A Pew survey in January 2020 found one in five respondents weren’t sure they would participate in the Census, while an earlier survey by the Census Bureau found that more than a third of Asian, Black and Hispanic Americans were “extremely” or “very” concerned that the data they provided would be used against them.

The Census director position was unfilled between June 2017 and January 2019, a critical period for planning. Director Steven Dillingham resigned in 2021 after whistleblowers said he was rushing to release a “statistically indefensible” report of non-citizens and “illegal aliens” in the country. The data had been demanded by the previous administration as a workaround to its failed attempt to force the inclusion of a citizenship question in the 2020 Census.

Dilingham’s successor as Census director, Robert Santos, announced the findings of two analyses of the accuracy of the count in 2022.

“Today’s results show statistical evidence that the quality of the 2020 Census total population count is consistent with that of recent censuses. This is notable, given the unprecedented challenges of 2020,” he said. “But the results also include some limitations — the 2020 Census undercounted many of the same population groups we have historically undercounted, and it overcounted others.”

A Career by the Numbers

Santos, the first Latino to hold the position of Census director, had envisioned a career as a mathematics professor, but was advised as an undergraduate that statistics offered more opportunities for employment. While a student in the statistics department at the University of Michigan, he had the chance to work with its Institute for Social Research on the first national survey of persons of Mexican descent. A statistician who had worked at the Census Bureau trained him in survey sampling.

Over the following decades, he held leadership positions at several university-based survey research centers and spent 15 years as vice president and chief methodologist for the Urban Institute. Today, he is poised to use his experience to make the Bureau the leading source of data about America’s people and economy, information that he sees as essential to its democracy. “I’m excited to be here and ready to make my contribution.”

Santos talked to Governing about some of his goals for his tenure. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Census workers taking an oath at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
Census workers take an oath at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
(Liz O. Baylen/TNS)
Governing: What do you hope to accomplish during your time as director?

Robert Santos: It’s incredibly important for me to bring a human face to the Census Bureau.

Historically, it has a well-deserved reputation for excellence in statistics, data processing and now data science. It’s too often seen as a monolithic entity that pushes out data, when in fact it’s filled with an amazing group of individuals who are diverse in terms of race, ethnicities, sex and areas of expertise.

We have economists, we have statisticians, we have demographers, we have computer scientists, we have data scientists, we have administrative people. It’s a great group of human beings, each of which has their own life experience, their own culture, their own values.

Governing: How might you put a human face on an enterprise that is so large?

Robert Santos: Our common mission includes upholding the Constitution and doing our constitutional duties for descendants, to put out quality data on the nation’s economy and our people, so that we understand who we are.

We further democracy in our country. We need people to understand that we are human beings, that we strive for excellence and achieve wonderful levels of quality in terms of data.

We do it in terms of fitness for use. No census is ever perfect. No statistical product is perfect. When you understand our strengths and limitations, the data that we put out is of higher value.

Governing: In recent years, some citizens have come to fear that the Bureau has political motives. What would you say to them?

Robert Santos: The Census Bureau is a nonpartisan federal statistical agency. When we work and we make decisions, we do it in an apolitical sense. I am not a politician. I’m a statistician.

Externally, there may be politicians and other folks that want to politicize that process. They can do whatever they want in their world. In the Census Bureau, we use our values of scientific integrity, objectivity, transparency and independence to create the best statistical data products that we can.

These can illuminate who we are as a country and advance it at the national, state and local levels.

Governing: At the recent summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures, you expressed a desire for state and local government to engage with the Bureau. What kinds of engagement are you hoping to see?

Robert Santos: Our constituents are everyone in the U.S. — local governments, county seats, folks in rural areas, cities, mayors, state legislatures, governors, Congress. We provide data to all of them.

I’m making sure that we do continuous outreach to state and local governments. We need to do that. We need to find out what their concerns are, what their needs are, so that we can better prepare data products and data tools that fit those specific needs.

Governing: What kinds of data products are already available?

Robert Santos: We’ve come up with things like the Community Resilience Estimates Program, in conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). You take a map of the U.S. and you plot the areas where there can be floods, or wildfires, or hurricanes along the coastal shores. Then we bridge that geographic data with Bureau data from all sources.

We create risk indicators like the proportion of the population in a census tract in a flood zone area, or a coastal area that could be subject to a hurricane — the proportion of the people that don’t have broadband, that are in poverty, that don’t have access to public transportation, that are disabled, that are 65.

If you’re building an evacuation plan or a rescue plan, you need to know where those pockets are.

There is a small business builder put out by our economic directorate, a wonderful little product. If you want to start a small business in a local area, you can drill down to your neighborhood and find out about the characteristics of potential customers and what the competition base looks like.

We have a vast array of tools at our disposal right now, but there are more that we need to make that can better respond to local communities and local governments.

Governing: What about input on the Census itself?

Robert Santos: We’ve recently put out the 2020 redistricting data and we want input on that. We’re planning for the 2030 Census. We want feedback from the state and local governments on what they think would make for a better Census in 2030. What are their wild and crazy ideas? What are their practical ideas?

We typically have periods where we formally request feedback. [An invitation for public input was published on Aug. 17.]

But at any other time, and even during those periods where there’s a formal announcement, anyone can simply reach out to me and I’ll make sure their feedback gets to the right people.
Census 2020 workers helping a New Yorker to complete the Census.
Census 2020 workers help a New Yorker to complete the Census. The Office of Management and Budget is reviewing how race and ethnicity standards might need to be updated to better reflect the nation’s diversity.
(Ed Reed/TNS)
Governing: The 2020 Census attempted to capture more nuanced data about race and culture. How might a future Census address this?

Robert Santos: This gets back to the human face issue. As we progress as a society into increasingly multiracial, multiethnic populations — that I believe we should celebrate and leverage great strength from — we have a need to best measure who we are and allow people to tell their stories.

As we grew and expanded with immigration in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, we became more diverse. What used to work back in the ’20s for a race, ethnicity question shouldn’t necessarily be what we use in the 1950s, or what we use in the 1990s or the 2000s. The last time we revised our race and ethnicity standards was in 1997.

The Office of Management and Budget is the group that defines what those standards are. In 2020, once people responded to one of the race categories required by the OMB standards, we also had a blank underneath where they could fill in whatever else they wanted to say with regard to race.

Through its wonderful Chief Statistician Karin Orvis, the OMB has resurrected a review of the race and ethnicity standards. The Census Bureau is a part of that, as are all of the other federal statistical agencies and other departments. Our process is beginning now, with a two-year window, and I fully expect it will add a richer diversity of races and ethnicities and allow people to tell their multiethnic, multiracial stories.

Governing: Could questions relating to gender expression change as well? 

Robert Santos: If we truly want to advance democracy, we need to know who we are as a people, so that we can better represent all constituencies in our wonderfully diverse nation. That includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Again, it’s the OMB that determines those standards and I know this is on their radar.

Governing: The last Census found that Latinos accounted for half of the country’s population growth. As the first Latino Census director, do you feel a sense of responsibility to that community?

Robert Santos: It’s not a matter of "I’m Latino, so I’m going to make a 'Latino' decision." But over the course of my 40-year career in a lot of leadership and decision-making positions, I have often been the sole person of color in a room full of decision-makers.

I’ve been able to provide insights based on my values, my culture, and my life experience growing up in a barrio to research design, to statistics, to how they’re interpreted, that add value and nuance and new knowledge gain.
A Health Authority outreach worker handing out information about the 2020 Census to a young resident of Chicago.
A Health Authority outreach worker hands out information about the 2020 Census to a young resident of Chicago. “It’s incredibly important for me to bring a human face to the Census Bureau,” says Director Robert Santos.
(Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Governing: In closing, are there Census Bureau resources that state and local government could use more vigorously and more often?

Robert Santos: Absolutely. In general, the Census Bureau needs to do more in its communication to different constituencies about the value and the mix of demographic and socioeconomic information we have on the population.

We have a great economic census coming up. It’s going to 4 million businesses in January, and we need the businesses to participate. That data set alone tells us about employees, about dollar volumes of sales or revenues about the types of services that are offered. We collect data to produce GDP types of estimates, both internationally and in the U.S.

The American Community Survey is a treasure trove of demographic and socioeconomic information. State and local governments may be accustomed to simply gathering data the way they always have without realizing the vast, additional information that is at their fingertips.

There’s a group of state demographers outside the Census Bureau. We have annual conferences to make sure that we have their input. They are a great resource to go to because they know what data are available. There are also Census Information Centers sprinkled throughout the U.S. whose job it is to put constituencies together with census data.

I would encourage state and local governments to assign one of their staff persons the task of talking to the Census Bureau and finding out all the data that is available. You’ll end up making much better decisions.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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