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Biden’s pick to head Census blends statistical, advocacy work

If confirmed by the Senate, Robert Santos would become the bureau’s first Latino director

Robert Santos says his heritage and childhood in San Antonio shaped how he viewed his ethnicity as an English-speaking Latino.
Robert Santos says his heritage and childhood in San Antonio shaped how he viewed his ethnicity as an English-speaking Latino. (Errich Petersen Photography)

When Robert Santos sets his mind to do something, he usually finds a way to make it happen.

Santos knew next to nothing about taking pictures when the career statistician awoke one morning and decided he wanted to photograph live bands. 

After years of attending the Austin City Limits Music Festival, the Texas native convinced a New York magazine to hire him as a photographer — and found himself shooting from the festival’s music pits. He eventually learned the craft well enough to earn a long-standing spot with the SXSW festival as its photo crew chief, managing about 100 photographers each year. 

“My interest in live music photography was spontaneous. Once it occurred, I listened to and acted upon that sudden interest and it quickly grew into a passion,” he told the American Statistical Association’s magazine in 2018. “It is a way to be creative and use both sides of the brain in a fun way.” 

Now Santos, currently president of the ASA and a vice president at the Urban Institute, is on the verge of becoming the first Latino director of the U.S. Census Bureau, the Commerce Department agency that helped define the ethnic category.

Santos, a third-generation Mexican American, heads into the Senate confirmation process with the backing of much of the advocate community surrounding the 2020 census. That same count may have undercounted people in Hispanic communities nationwide, experts fear.

Previous census counts have missed millions of people in those communities and other racial and ethnic minorities, and Santos raised concerns that last year’s enumeration would miss them as well in a 2019 Urban Institute report on “Assessing Miscounts in the 2020 Census.”

The report said long-term problems as well as decisions by the former Trump administration, such as fighting to add a citizenship question, could result in a historic undercount of immigrants and other populations.

Santos himself said on a 2019 Urban Institute podcast that the agency could do more to accurately measure the “tsunami” of growing minority populations. The census first started asking about Latino heritage in 1970, with tweaks throughout the decades, including adding the option to be considered Hispanic. 

Santos described his own ethnic identity at a 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics event marking Hispanic Heritage Month, saying his heritage and childhood in San Antonio shaped how he viewed his ethnicity as an English-speaking Latino.

“Increasingly, we are a nation of mixed race and ethnicities, and I love that about us. Besides being Latino, I personally take great pride in being a parent, grandparent, spouse and friend, as well as a statistician and policy researcher, a photographer and grill master,” he said.

On top of Santos’ statistical background, his work balancing national advocacy groups and committees has likely prepared him for the political problems the Census Bureau will face in wrapping up this census and preparing for the next, said Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Education Fund.

“He fully understands the political and structural challenges that the Census Bureau has faced from working outside the agency as an advocate,” Vargas said, calling Santos “uniquely qualified” to run the agency. 

“He brings that perspective as to what’s needed to make sure the bureau has the funding, gets the right workforce in place and continues being the premier agency for federal statistics.”

Santos previously served as president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, “which shows you how much confidence the scientific community has in Rob Santos,” according to former Census Bureau Director John Thompson.

Senate leaders who oversee his nomination have not yet formed an opinion on the pick. Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Gary Peters, D-Mich., who has not set a confirmation hearing, is still mulling the choice.

“The 2020 Census is a roadmap for the next decade and the Bureau needs a Senate-confirmed leader who is dedicated to collecting accurate data and supporting the career experts working to make sure every American is counted,” a Peters aide said in a statement. “Chairman Peters looks forward to reviewing Robert Santos’ qualifications and discussing his vision for the Bureau during his confirmation process.” 

Lingering 2020 issues

The Census Bureau faces numerous hurdles in wrapping up last year’s count, which Santos would handle if confirmed. Agency officials delivered congressional apportionment data in late April, blowing far past a Dec. 31 statutory deadline, with redistricting figures coming as late as the end of September because of delays caused by the pandemic and decisions by the Trump administration.

The Biden White House has so far stood by that delay, with Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo saying she would defer to career staff at the agency. Several states have challenged the decision to delay the results, with suits pending from Ohio and Alabama.

Alabama’s lawsuit also challenged the implementation of the agency’s new privacy protections, referred to as differential privacy. The agency adopted the protections during the Trump administration after research showed individual census responses could be identified.

The new method uses an algorithm to change some data in the responses, but Alabama, a number of civil rights advocates and even Santos himself have said that runs the risk of making the results unusable.

Thompson said Santos’ past criticism of the process puts him in a good position to oversee its implementation. 

“He’s asking exactly the right questions about differential privacy. Quite frankly, the Census Bureau has got to answer the questions Rob and others have posed, and Rob will make sure they do that,” Thompson said.

Diana Elliott, a co-author of the 2019 Urban Institute’s “Assessing Miscounts” report, said Santos has a “deep respect” for the staff at the Census Bureau as well as a passion for the census itself. She said Santos approached the work with an open mind, ready to listen to outside input.

“He has that rare balance of being strategically really smart, a great collaborator but also understanding statistics. And that is sort of really appropriate for the moment, because there are going to be a lot of different voices who are going to have opinions about the census, and there’s even going to be a lot of methodological decisions at the Census [Bureau] that are going to have to be made,” Elliott said.

Those decisions go beyond implementation of differential privacy, including when to use statistical methods to fill in gaps in the count and making the call for when the data is actually ready for release.

Long-term changes

Biden nominated Santos to serve out the remainder of previous Director Steven Dillingham’s term, as well as another five-year term through 2026. That could put Santos in position to shape the 2030 census, which could be more reliant on data and administrative records than ever before.

Vargas said he also hopes Santos will address the “mess” the Census Bureau currently faces over race and ethnicity data. Currently, race — such as white, Black or Asian — is collected separately from Hispanic ethnicity. Additionally, advocates have pushed for the census to add a category for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent.

The Census Bureau researched and formulated a combined race and ethnicity question before this decennial census, but the changes were not taken up by the Trump administration. 

“Given that his expertise includes this field, I’m confident he’ll make it a priority, and that’s one of the reasons I get excited about his nomination,” Vargas said.  

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