Robert Santos was sworn in as the new director of the U.S. Census Bureau on Jan. 5. Before his nomination, he was considering retiring after 40 years as a statistician and a top leader in survey research organizations. But his unstoppable spirit convinced him to accepted the challenge.
Santos, 67, was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, and is the first Latino to lead the U.S. Census Bureau. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Trinity University in San Antonio and a master’s degree in statistics from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Santos talked with the Tampa Bay Times about his new position and goals.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you feel about becoming the first Latino person to serve as the Census Bureau’s director?
It’s been very humbling to have the honor to serve my country in this way. All my life I have tried to pay it forward because of the opportunities that have come my way throughout my career. I’m 67 years old — rather than starting my retirement, I accepted the challenge of being considered for this appointment when I was asked.
I believe that every person needs to bring their whole self, their ‘alma’ (soul) to the table in everything that they do, especially when it comes to their work. That includes their values, their culture, language, life experiences. If you bring that and add to whatever technical expertise or skill or talent that you have, it’s going to make you better at whatever you do.
I have lived experience. And I have examples that I am now sharing with the Census Bureau. What it means to be a Latino statistician and leader, and how that actually helps you to be a better statistician and get more accurate and relevant data. And that’s why, I, as a leader at the Census Bureau, am focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion in our work — I believe that this will allow us to achieve new levels of excellence that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to.
Your parents were from Mexico, right?
My parents were both born in San Antonio but all my ‘abuelitos and abuelitas’ (grandparents) came from Mexico.
And you were the first generation in your family to attend college?
Yes, I am, but I’m actually most proud of my sister because she actually got a doctorate, and I have a master’s degree in statistics. But my siblings, my sisters, we all went to college. So, it’s been really rewarding to see that all of the work that my parents and my grandparents went through got us to a point that we had an opportunity to go to college.
The 2020 census overcounted the white and Asian populations. It also missed 3 percent of Black people and almost one in 20 Latinos nationwide. What’s your analysis of this scenario?
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Honestly, I expected that there would be issues. There were tremendous challenges posed to the Census Bureau in conducting the 2020 census. The pandemic in particular affected people that historically had been hard to count. And they affected the most Latinos, Blacks, the American Indians and native Alaskans on tribal lands.
The Census Bureau, nonetheless, I believe, really faced that challenge and did a phenomenal job because we had great partnerships with communities. And so, because of the community partnerships as well as the ability of the Census Bureau to quickly ... change course and adapt to the challenges that were faced, we completed the job that we set up to do. So the counts that were produced we are proud of.
What is your vision for the next four years as the census director ?
There are different aspects of the vision.
One aspect is embracing the population, as I said, the stakeholders. The second one is using diversity and equity and inclusion as lenses to better motivate innovation and better data, and the third is really a modernization of our entire enterprise as a Census Bureau. Our mission is to collect and produce quality data on our people and in our country, which historically (has come) through a transactional process where we approach people, businesses or governments and we ask them: Please give us your information. And fundamentally that process always has to be a part of it, but it doesn’t have to be the main focus of what we do. In modernization what we are looking to do is to bring together existing data and to bring it from as many sources as we can.
That will create savings and allow us to then focus on the historically hard-to-count population through things like community engagement and more knocking on doors and things of that sort, because it always is going to be that component of really the most vulnerable on our society that needs extra help in order to get participation, so that we can understand who they are and we can better serve those communities.
The Census Bureau has been exploring new ways of gathering data. One of them is the Frames Program, an effort to combine and link all kinds of data sets, from administrative records from the government agencies and the private sector, as well as surveys and censuses. Could you explain its benefits and importance?
The Frames Program is a really cool pilot program that brings together these very large data sets that are used to create samples. You can do different things that you couldn’t do before, as well as it allows us to maybe reduce the amount of information that we have to gather in the future in either census or surveys. It can help us if people fail to answer a specific question we may be able to find the answer, so that we can fill it in, and that way we can enrich the data that we already have. It’s actually a quite useful and innovative thing that we are doing moving forward. We think that it will reduce duplication and manual effort, and create some really useful data products for the public.
You are a well-known statistician, but also you were a live music photographer. How was this experience? Is it true that you were a photo crew chief?
I started this passion because I am a music lover and I have been going to the Austin City Limits Music Festival, which is an outdoor festival in Austin, Texas, where I used to live, and I went to almost all of them. Back in 2009 I was up front at a concert outside and I noticed these photographers going in front of me taking pictures and I thought, ‘I want to do that’. So I went up, bought a camera and I started taking pictures. Before you knew it I applied to the South by Southwest festival for photography crew and they accepted me. I did it for eight years, and after four years or so, they finally figured it out that I knew something about management. I ended up becoming a photo crew chief. But I absolutely love live music photography, in low-light, where people are jumping up in the air, swinging their guitars and just being very passionate about what they do. That resonates with me very much.