For the new Census Bureau director, the challenge of the decade
By Michael Wines
The new director of the Census Bureau, Robert L. Santos, has his work cut out for him. He took office in January on the heels of a 2020 census hobbled by a pandemic, natural disasters and political interference by the Trump administration.
The census proved accurate enough in the end to be used to reapportion the House of Representatives and guide the drawing of new political maps nationwide. But it also undercounted Black and Latino people — and overcounted white and Asian people — to an alarming degree. Those flaws resonate with Santos, a Latino who is the first person of color to hold the top Census Bureau post.
His task is not just to rebuild battered public trust in the census, but to prepare for a 2030 count that could rely on government data and even private data from internet giants like Amazon to achieve a more accurate count.
Santos is a statistician with more than four decades of experience in corporate, nonprofit and government posts, most recently at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit that analyzes social and economic policies. In a recent question-and-answer session, edited for length and clarity, he talked about those challenges.
Q: When you were at the Urban Institute you were openly worried that some of the problems the 2020 census faced, from the pandemic to political interference, might threaten the integrity of the count. Now that it’s over, how would you grade it?
A: I would say — and I’m really proud of this — that this Census Bureau completed the job that it intended to do for the 2020 census, and it provided a quality product for the overall population. The apportionment counts and the redistricting counts were absolutely fit for use. They’re quality products. We stand by them.
The undercounts, as a result of the research that we conducted with the post-enumeration survey, realized some of the worries that I had — that there was a larger undercount for many people of color. It’s not surprising, given the situation that existed in the pandemic where communities of color were absolutely the hardest hit. They were the folks that lost jobs. They were the folks that couldn’t work remotely at home. They were the folks that were in fear of being tossed out by landlords.
Q: How do we avoid these undercounts in the future?
A: There has to be a better way to do it. We are rethinking at this moment how we can implement and organize a 2030 census that helps more directly address these issues of historically undercounted populations.
We are looking at ways of expanding the use of administrative records. They tend to be useful for populations that are easier to count and for the historically hard-to-count population.
Secondly, we need to build a stronger relationship with all communities, especially communities of color. There has been a lot of mistrust that has built up over the past five years or so, and we need to much more directly get into communities and talk to people and work with communities to do two things.
One is to provide them with information from the Census Bureau that can show them how they can improve their communities, identify problems and address them with data sets, data-driven decision making.
And the second is by providing something to the community over the course of the decade. Then when the census comes around, it’s not a sudden surge of “OK, trust us and let’s go please participate.”
Q: Some experts worry about the reliability of commercial data. Does that pose a hurdle to its use in the next census?
A: They are a rich source of information. As anyone knows, commercial firms create data for their commercial uses, and that means that the data aren’t necessarily designed to be used in things like federal data collection for counting folks. It’s the classic problem of messy big data.
We are exploring ways of identifying data from the commercial sector, acquiring it and seeing to what extent there is utility.
The one danger, of course, is that if you become too reliant on commercial data, there’s a danger that you’re one IPO or one change in a CEO away from not having access.
Q: How reliable are government records likely to be by 2030? Are there particular areas where your work with the Office of Management and Budget can produce data that will help the count, such as updating the bureau’s master address list?
A: There are a variety of areas where we expect the data only to improve. Part of it is coming from the work that we’re doing with OMB on setting statistical standards.
It would be nice if we could encourage states to abide by those, too, to embrace those standards, but that is a state choice. Maybe it would be nice if the commercial sector adopted those standards, but sometimes that’s in conflict with what the Census Bureau needs.
Q: The 2020 census questions about race and ethnicity led to seismic shifts in how people characterized their race and ethnicity, which confused many people. Is there a better way to ensure that answers to that question are more accurate?
A: There are certainly ways to come to ask questions to more accurately collect self-identity. Our country not only is becoming more wonderfully diverse, but we’re also appreciating culture and ancestry in ways that maybe didn’t exist 20 years ago with the advent of DNA testing and finding where your roots and ancestors are with genealogy and so forth. We’re appreciating who we are more, and I think that’s a beautiful thing and we should be capturing that.
I don’t think it’s useful to superimpose somebody else’s idea on what race or ethnicity you are, and instead I tend to prefer that people self-identify. But I leave it to our wonderful subject matter experts and demographers and OMB and our federal statistical community to discuss.
Q: Political interference was a big problem in 2020. Are there steps that Congress or the administration could take to better protect the bureau from inappropriate political interference?
A: I can tell you that I have thoughts, but I will not communicate them. I don’t think it’s the role of the Census Bureau to be advising Congress on what it can be doing. What I can say with confidence is that regardless of what the structure is, I have absolutely 100% confidence in the career staff to maintain scientific integrity and reduce and eliminate any political meddling, including my own by the way.