Biden Taps AmStat President to Head Census Bureau

Tuesday U.S. President Joe Biden announced that he would nominate Robert Santos, president of the American Statistical Association, as director of the Census Bureau. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Santos would take the place of Steven Dillingham, an appointee of former President Donald Trump whose contentious tenure ended with the director’s resignation in January. Ron Jarmin, the Census Bureau’s chief operating officer, has been running the agency since.

Robert Santos
Robert Santos

Santos, a Texas native, would be the first person of color to head the bureau.

He is currently vice president and chief methodologist at the Urban Institute, and has a long history of serving in high profile positions in the statistical and research methodology arena. As his bio on the American Statistical Association website notes, “Rob has worked across a wide range of policy areas including hunger, immigration, decennial census counts, education, health, immigration, the environment, housing discrimination, travel behavior, and elections.” Santos has a special emphasis on survey research and several stints interfacing directly with the federal statistical system. Some of his positions in the last four decades include serving as director of survey operations for the Survey Research Center, University of Michigan; vice president of statistics and methodology at NORC University of Chicago; and senior study director at ISR Temple University.

Santos served on numerous panels hosted by the National Academies of Science, the Census Advisory Committee for Professional Organizations (2001-2006), and the Centers for Disease Control National Center for Health Statistics’ Board of Scientific Counselors (2017-2020). He has been a member of Feeding America’s Technical Advisory Group since 2004.

He is an elected American Statistical Association Fellow and a recipient of the ASA Founder’s Award, the association’s highest recognition for distinguished service and leadership. Santos is a past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research and an elected member of the International Statistical Institute.

The Census Bureau saw a tumultuous 2020, with its signal product, the Constitutionally mandated decennial national census, entangled in various political and then operational controversies. Santos, as president-elect of the ASA, told Bloomberg CityLab last October that “I do not believe that a fair and accurate census can occur. I expect it to be one of the most flawed censuses in history.” Santos had, at the time, already co-chaired (with former U.S. Chief Statistician Nancy Potok ) an ASA task force on the issues facing the Census.

Biden has made addressing some of those issues an early priority of his administration, and on his first day in office signed an executive order that revokes a Trump executive order on who to include in the Census count – that earlier memorandum called for collecting information about noncitizens in the U.S. and then excluding those people from apportionment counts based on their immigration status. The Biden order re-affirmed the traditional reading of the Constitutional mandate to count “whole persons,” and also called for ensuring that the data in the census “is accurate and complies with all applicable laws.”

Dillingham, the former full-time director, only assumed the role in 2019 after the position lay vacant for a year. As we have previously reported, the immigration issue – specifically, pressuring Census staff to produce a technical report on undocumented persons in the United States –seems to have proved Dillingham’s undoing. He announced on January 18 that he would step on January 20, 11 months before the end of his official term. Dillingham did not cite the report, or the investigation into the what has been called a “statistically indefensible” document, in his departure message.  

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