New Census director has faith in quality of 2020 numbers

The new U.S. Census Bureau director said Monday that he is listening to the concerns of data users and policymakers, and the agency is making permanent community outreach efforts, in an effort to restore any trust that was lost following attempts by the Trump administration to politicize the nation’s 2020 head count.

Despite those attempts and obstacles created by the pandemic, the Census Bureau did its job and the numbers used to determine political power and allocate federal funding “are quality products, and they are fit for the purpose they were intended,” Robert Santos said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“I have high confidence and I’ve been incredibly pleased with the professionalism of the career staff at the Census Bureau, the job that they’ve done, and their dedication to the mission, the Constitution and the rule of law,” Santos said. “They were doing their due diligence and they made sure they did the job that needed to be done to get the 2020 census done, despite all the obstacles.”

The Trump administration unsuccessfully tried to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form, which opponents feared may have suppressed participation from immigrants groups. The Trump administration also named an unusually high number of political appointees to the bureau, and it tried to end the head count early last October, after its schedule had been adjusted for the pandemic, in what opponents said was an effort to release the numbers used for divvying up congressional seats while President Donald Trump was still in office.

Data from the once-a-decade head count also are used for drawing political districts and helping allocate $1.5 trillion in federal spending each year.

The Urban Institute think tank last year estimated that 1.6 million people were missed in the 2020 census, with people of color, renters, noncitizens, children and people living in Texas most likely to be undercounted. In 2019, a year and a half before he was nominated to lead the Census Bureau, Santos co-authored an Urban Institute report that said African Americans could be undercounted nationally by 3.6% and Hispanics could be undercounted by 3.5%, in worst-case scenarios in the 2020 census.

Santos, speaking to The Associated Press from his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, said Monday he had “absolutely zero idea” if those projections were accurate. Next month, the Census Bureau plans to release a report card showing how good a job it did of counting different populations.

Santos started a five-year term leading the nation’s largest statistical agency at the beginning of the year after being nominated for the job by President Joe Biden. In his new job, he is overseeing the release of more detailed data from the 2020 census later this year, as well as preparing for the next once-a-decade head count in 2030.

Santos said Monday that he is “eager” to work with the Office of Budget and Management on exploring whether the race and ethnic background questions should be combined and whether a category for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent should be added to the 2030 census form.

A previous study by the Suitland, Maryland-headquartered Census Bureau showed that combining the race and ethnic background questions increased response rates by Hispanics, who may be uncertain how to answer the race question because they often are from mixed racial and ethnic backgrounds. The Office of Budget and Management had considered pairing the questions for the 2020 census, but the Trump administration decided to keep the race question separate from the ethnicity one.

A report released last month from three sociologists said that the current practice of categorizing people from the Middle East or North Africa as white “may not correspond to their lived experiences nor to others’ perceptions.”

The Census Bureau director wouldn’t say if he personally supported adding questions on the 2030 census form about sexual orientation or gender identity, saying “my personal feelings are not fodder for this type of conversation.” Sexual orientation and gender identity are asked about in a new Census Bureau survey formed during the pandemic, the Household Pulse Survey, but they have never been asked about in the much more comprehensive decennial census.

“In principle, we need to think about how we can capture a better portrait of the American public,” Santos said. “The American public is nuanced. As time goes on, we are becoming more diverse. We are appreciating culture, language, our own identities in ways that really transcend what existed before.”

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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP

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