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Sundial Now: First Latino Census director explains how data can tell us who we are

RobertS.Santos.jpg
Courtesy of U.S. Census Bureau
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Robert S. Santos is the 26th director of the U.S. Census Bureau. He is also the first Latino director to hold this position.

During a time of anti-government sentiment and general scrutiny over data, the U.S. Census Bureau has set out to establish more trust among the American people, according to its director.

Disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump administration made it harder for the U.S. government to take its nationwide 10-year headcount. A report found that 14 states, including Florida, had reported miscounts during the 2020 Census.

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The Bureau's first-ever Latino director, Robert Santos, wants to set the record straight, showing how good data can help us understand who we are as a nation and help "build better neighborhoods".

On a visit to Miami to attend the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Santos spoke to WLRN's Alyssa Ramos about making census data more accessible and engaging with Black and Latino communities, like those in South Florida.

"We believe that by showing those tangible paybacks in terms of information and data for better decision-making, that we can encourage participation," he said on Sundial Now. "Because it's all about trust."

Santos, who says he often found himself "being the sole Latino in a room full of decision makers", started by talking about how his identity has influenced the work he does.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

SANTOS: Being a Latino has had a pretty profound effect on my entire career leading up to and into the Census Bureau. I have been a Latino working as a statistician in policy research for many years and survey research as well. Oftentimes, I found myself being the sole Latino in a room full of decision makers about research or about grant funding or other things, where it was important for me to voice my perspective in order to enlighten folks on how the research could adversely impact people of color.

And so I've lived that over the course of 40 years. I bring the fact that one's identity and one's culture can actually add value to the research that you do. And I bring this notion that you have to bring your whole self to the table to be a better scientist, to gain knowledge better, and that you don't need to just do it for yourself. You need to encourage others to do it, so that you develop several diverse voices, feeding into any policy issue or decision and management or administrative issue. Just about anything.

RAMOS: Have you always been interested in data, in numbers?

SANTOS: Actually, yes, since I was a child. I had been enthralled with mathematics. I actually wanted to be a mathematics professor. But unfortunately, back in the day when I when I graduated from undergraduate school with a mathematics degree, my professor wisely understood back then that only the best of the best of the best could become math professors.

So he encouraged me to go into statistics, which I did, and that allowed me then to become an applied statistician and a manager and an executive and basically do the two things that professionally I'm so passionate about. One is statistics and the other is helping people.

RAMOS: And speaking of helping people, how do you plan on more specifically engaging with Black and Latino communities in a place like South Florida, for instance?

SANTOS: That's really important. What I plan to do is work with the Census Bureau as well as just do everything on a continuous basis rather than thinking, 'Oh, there's a decennial census coming up, and then a few years before we start up activity.' We need a continuous two-way relationship where two things happen: On the one hand, we provide information to to the public, but on the other hand, we learn from the public as well.

We actually do three censuses, including our American Community Survey, which really is the rich national treasure that allows us to see who we are as a people. And that's the one survey that advances our democracy and allows us to see who we are, allows us to do needs assessment, see underserved populations and find areas that are actually doing well, so we can learn from them. So there's lots of stuff going on all the time.

RAMOS: You mentioned the America survey. Can you tell me more about that? And how does it show us ourselves?

SANTOS: So we're constantly doing a survey - every three months - of the country. We put them together for a year, and that makes up a one-year American community survey that measures over 40 different topics that include unemployment, disability, broadband access, characteristics about how you live in your household, the type of unit you live in, whether you own or you rent, how much income you make and things of that sort.

So it's very, very rich and it allows us to know who we are as a nation. And that helps so much and allows cities and local communities to do needs assessment to understand... for example, language spoken at home in places like South Florida. It's really important to know at the neighborhood basis. Which language do we need to accommodate in schools or what do we need to plan for in case of an evacuation notice for a hurricane?

RAMOS: What are some challenges that are unique to census promoters in our area, like Florida?

SANTOS: We need local government and local partners and communities to help encourage people to participate. And we think we can do that by doing outreach to the community and showing in tangible ways how the data we collect allows them to build better neighborhoods, to know where they should put in a fire station or a stoplight or a grocery store, how we can help advance organizations to come in and build factories or malls or whatever is needed.

We believe that by showing those tangible paybacks in terms of information and data for better decision-making, that we can encourage participation. Because it's all about trust. We know that there are segments of the population that absolutely know about Census Bureau and they will participate. They understand the civic duty and they feel good about it.

And there are other segments of the population that have questions and some have trust issues. We want to be able to address directly those trust issues because we know that we have high scientific integrity, we protect privacy and we want to be able to encourage people and let them know that their data are safe with us.

RAMOS: Data, privacy and security has been a really big issue, but I'm also interested in what numbers can do for people. How have you seen tangible paybacks in your personal life as far as how data can help people? Can you give certain examples of that?

SANTOS: Back in the day before my Census time, there were poverty estimates that are released on a regular basis down to the state level. And I worked with a professor of economics at the University of Urbana-Champaign, and he developed smaller geographic estimates of food insecurity for children and food insecurity for families. And we used that in working with a group like Feeding America to to help establish where to focus in on feeding programs. And that was before I became census director.

Now that I'm Census Director, we're in the process of building use cases like that, so that we can show the public that there are ways that are really effective to make a decision to help communities respond better to their needs.

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Alyssa Ramos is a multimedia producer for WLRN’s Morning Edition.
Leslie Ovalle produces WLRN's daily magazine program, Sundial. She previously produced Morning Edition newscasts at WLRN and anchored the midday news. As a multimedia producer, she also works on visual and digital storytelling.