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Census Bureau Director Robert Groves is getting kudos for his handling of the 2010 head count.

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Statistician: Robert Groves(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

CORRECTION: The original version of this report misstated the amount the 2010 Census came in under budget. The correct figure is $1.87 billion.

The mandate put forth by the Founders in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution seems simple enough: count all of the people in the United States every 10 years.

 

But since the nation’s first census in 1790, there has never been a time when the count hasn’t caused grief for those charged with the undertaking. Back then, it was Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson who dispatched U.S. marshals to take a head count. Both he and President Washington wrinkled their noses when the final tally came to just under 4 million; they believed the actual population to be much higher.

The complexities of conducting a good census have only compounded in the past two centuries. So it’s been something of a surprise that the 2010 census went off as well as it did, coming in $1.87 billion under budget and matching the 2000 effort’s participation rate of 74 percent—quite a feat in an age when fewer and fewer Americans are inclined to send back surveys.

Now that the dust has settled and redistricting is well under way across the United States, even hard-to-impress Republicans are praising Census Bureau Director Robert Groves, the man at the center of the operation. “I want to say publicly how enthused I am that we have very supercompetent leadership at the Census,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told Groves at an April hearing. “Are we going to get to keep you?”

 

So, how did a lifelong scholar with little experience navigating the vast Washington bureaucracy manage to pull it off? It was not a job that Groves sought. When the Obama administration asked him to take the post, he was living a quiet life as a world-renowned statistician and sociologist at the University of Michigan.

Moreover, Groves had witnessed for himself how fraught with political tension the census process could be—he served as associate director from 1990 to 1992 under Barbara Everitt Bryant, who wanted to bring someone with a national reputation into the fold. (Her tactic for cajoling the gun-shy Groves into accepting the position? Showing up at his doorstep—Bryant lived a block away in Ann Arbor, Mich.)

He sparked controversy then by advocating the use of statistical sampling to adjust for an undercount in the 1990 census—some say to the tune of 4 million people—that disproportionately missed minorities, immigrants, and the poor. Republicans cried foul, viewing sampling as a political ploy to boost Democrats’ numbers. The proposal was scrapped, ultimately deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Add to that the oddity that directors are chosen after most of the decisions about the next census have been made—and the predictions that the 2010 census was “going down the tubes,” in Groves’s words—and you could see why it might give him pause. Ultimately, it was something like patriotism that spurred him onward.

 

“It’s a very important institution in the society, a key nonpartisan source of statistical information and a key component of the democracy,” Groves says. “It was the thing that you had to do, basically,” he adds. “This is not a job you seek.”

In part, it may have been Groves’s complete lack of political appetite that helped him carry out a sound census. He was nimble in responding to criticism as it arose. Although he’s spent much of his career figuring out how to correct nonresponse errors, he committed to keeping sampling out of the 2010 count. Ultimately, he won over early critics with his level-headed approach.

“It should be a totally statistical job, and the directors have tried to keep it that way. But there’s a lot of politics coming out of Congress, so you have to withstand various pressures,” said his old boss, Bryant. “You have to be pretty firm about what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it.”

“Bob Groves is so totally nonpolitical,” she adds.

Sheer luck had something to do with Groves’s success, too. An epidemic or a natural disaster could have easily derailed the Census Bureau’s operation, which had thousands of workers crisscrossing the country. But Groves’s key asset—the most highly skilled, sophisticated temporary workforce the census has ever seen, thanks in part to the recession—was mercifully spared.

Perhaps most important, Groves approached the post with the intellectual curiosity that has defined his academic career. While still an undergraduate at Dartmouth, he wrote a paper on criminal recidivism among inmates at a Vermont state prison. When the warden, who had given him access to the data, scoffed at his findings, Groves took a summer job as a prison guard to better understand, growing a mustache to fit in. He befriended a man who was serving a life sentence for murdering his wife, and they read philosophical treatises together. Groves cites the summer as one of the most intellectually stimulating experiences of his life.

He brought the same desire to understand better to the Census Bureau. As a scientist, he felt strongly about the importance of having reliable data. Groves traveled the country during his tenure as director, speaking to churches, community groups, and other local organizations about the importance of census participation. As a social scientist, he was fascinated by the diverse, changing demographic landscape of the United States—from the Somali community in St. Paul, Minn., to the Latino presence along the Texas-Mexico border.

But he also understood that the constitutional purpose of the census was different from his own intellectual interests. “I must admit, I thought of it as a social-science enterprise where we were interested in learning about the society,” Groves says. “That’s not its primary purpose. The purpose is narrow.”

Article 1, Section 2 told him to count. And so he did.

This article appears in the July 9, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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