- Newly appointed Robert L. Santos takes the helm of a highly politicized US Census Bureau.
- Supporters say being the first Latino can overshadow the expertise that earned him the role.
- His background includes a history of surveying marginalized and underrepresented groups.
Robert Santos made headlines last month for becoming the first Latino and first person of color to be confirmed as the permanent, Senate-confirmed head of the Census Bureau.
In 1998, James F. Holmes, who is Black, temporarily led the Census Bureau as its acting director, but Santos is the first person of color to hold the role in a permanent appointment.
But some experts say that framing undermines the most significant part of Santo’s biography: his statistical expertise.
“He is such a superb statistician and has such a high reputation in the statistical world, but sometimes the description [of him as Latino] comes before his accomplishments,” said Marta Tienda, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University and a trustee at the Urban Institute, where Santos previously worked.
“Speaking for myself and other people at Urban, we’re really unhappy that he’s leaving, but we’re really happy he’s going to be leading the census,” she told Insider.
A statistician by training, Santos has worked at some of the most prestigious research universities, including the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center, NORC at the University of Chicago, and the Institute for Survey Research at Temple University.
From there, he’s gone on to serve as the president of the American Statistical Association (ASA), the foremost professional organization for statisticians, and as the vice president for statistical methods and chief methodologist at the Urban Institute – an economic and social policy research nonprofit.
Santos knows the methodology and has a better grip on the numbers than anyone else, some of his former colleagues, including Tienda, say.
She added if there’s anyone who can work towards ending the politicization of the census, ensuring more Americans are counted and fairly resourced, it’s Santos.
“He knows his material, cares deeply about the data, and understands its implications for the country over the next decade,” Tienda said. “He’s done a lot of work to recover the attempts to politicize the census with the last administration.”
Santos will helm a bureau that’s been greatly politicized
In recent years, the Census Bureau has been greatly politicized.
In 2020, former President Donald Trump commanded the bureau to count undocumented immigrants separately from the 2020 Census count, a request it did not follow through on.
Many argued the move was a way to hurt Democrats electoral power by siphoning undocumented people from the population count that is used to determine House seats.
Trump also wanted to put a question directly asking people’s citizenship on the census, however, the question was rejected by the Supreme Court. Despite that, experts maintained that the introduction of the question discouraged people, particularly those from marginalized communities, from participating in the survey.
Santos has spoken out against the politicization of the census before.
Last year, he wrote a letter to Senate leaders criticizing last-minute scheduling changes to census data collection implemented by the Trump administration.
“There is no scientific rationale to curtail the data-collection period for this constitutionally-mandated activity, and the premature cessation of census enumeration will produce flawed counts,” Santos wrote.
Tienda echoed that criticism, arguing that “rebuilding the trust in government is going to be important, besides just getting the numbers right.”
“Rob’s the person to do it.” she said.
Santos’ biography includes a history of surveying underrepresented groups
More than 50 human rights organizations signed a letter of support urging the Senate to confirm Santos in July, commending his “expertise in survey methodology” and “his decades of research to inform policies to improve the lives of disadvantaged populations.”
The Urban Institute recently published a report that found that while the census undercount was “not as severe as expected,” it nonetheless highlights that certain groups of people are disproportionately at risk – mainly indigenous, Black and Latinx households and those with a non-citizen.
“The undercount, specifically for Black and Latino communities, is persistent,” Diana Elliot, a principal research associate, told Insider.
“When you think about how complicated it is to count the country, then you add in the pandemic and the fact that the bureau has gone without someone officially leading it for some time now, Rob’s appointment is critical and we’re excited to see all he does at the Census Bureau,” she added.
Experts say that makes Santos’ expertise in ensuring communities are accounted for is incredibly important, particularly as the bureau assesses what strategy changes to implement for the next census survey.
Santos’ Mexican-American background is not irrelevant to the work he’ll be undertaking
Though Santos’ colleagues urge people to place the emphasis on Santos’ statistical expertise rather than his cultural and ethnic identity, Santos’ Mexican-American background is not wholly irrelevant.
Given Latinos and other communities of color are vastly underrepresented in this data collection, Santos provides another layer of knowledge and perspective to the data collection.
“Rob is devoted to the various communities to which he belongs and to the promotion of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Kathy Ensor, president of the ASA, said in a statement. “In addition to being a leader, he is also a valued team member.”
Above all, his appointment is historic. The bureau has never had a person of color permanently preside over it.
“I understand the importance of data quality and the Census Bureau’s role in providing data that nurtures our democracy, informs our people and promotes our great economy,” Santos told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committeeduring a confirmation hearing in April.
Given the Census data is employed to determine district maps, the allocation of federal funding, and civil rights protections, it’s importance cannot be overstated, said Elliot.
“There’s a nation-wide misunderstanding when it comes to the census that it only matters in the couple of years leading up to the data collection. But it’s increasingly important for us to have a more long-term view of the census,” Elliot said. “Santos] will help us keep that awareness high.”