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Census Director: Showing the value of data is key to rebuilding trust after 2020 count

A 2020 U.S. Census form against a backdrop of the American flag
U.S. Census Bureau
A 2020 U.S. Census form

Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 U.S. Census was a complicated, controversial affair. Census Director Robert Santos recently sat down with the Mountain West News Bureau to discuss how his agency is preparing for 2030.

In its own review of the 2020 effort, the U.S. Census Bureau concluded that the count was largely accurate, but that there were still issues for some demographic groups. The Pew Research Center noted that there was a record undercount of Hispanics, and a continuation of historic undercounts of Black people and Native Americans.

In 2022, Santos said that more work was necessary to ensure “equitable coverage across the United States and we are working to overcome any and all obstacles to achieve that goal.”

Part of improving participation, he said last week, is showing Americans the value of the data his agency produces.

“We no longer become an organization that says, ‘please, we need something from you.’ But instead we are the organization that says, ‘here we are, we have something of benefit to you.’ And we'll let the participation take care of itself.”

Among his bureau’s many data resources, he pointed to tools that show how vulnerable different communities are to natural disasters like wildfires, information he said can aid emergency responses. The recently updated wildfirerisk.org website also uses Census data to illustrate unique risks and considerations when wildfires are raging.

“When it comes to trust issues, it's absolutely central that we continue to do this engagement, that we show that we care about communities, that we show the data that's available and help people use the data to improve their communities,” Santos said. “Because we believe that is the key to instilling and restoring some of the trust that may have been lost as a result of the 2020 [Census] and all of the other things that happened with it.”

For populations with a history of undercounts, like Native Americans, Santos shared some efforts “to better understand and to engage and to work on a nation-to-nation basis.”

“We actually have built up an infrastructure of tribal representatives who are members of the Census Bureau, who are federal workers, civil servants, but who are also tribal citizens,” he added. “And we are using that as a way of guaranteeing a cultural relevance and knowledge base upon which to extend and work with tribes so that we have better understandings.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.
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