The Washington Post
First woman to oversee U.S. census
Barbara Everitt Bryant, a market researcher who became the first woman to lead the Census Bureau, and who navigated controversy over the undercounting of minority groups in the 1990 Census while trying to modernize the agency’s data collection practices, died March 3 at an assistedliving center in Ann Arbor, Mich. She was 96.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter Linda Valentine, who did not cite a cause.
Dr. Bryant started her career in survey research relatively late, at age 44, after raising three children, volunteering for community groups and completing a PHD in communications. Over the next three decades, she rose to become a senior vice president at Market Opinion Research, a Michigan polling firm, where she led studies for presidential commissions on women’s rights, world hunger and outdoor recreation.
By December 1989, when President George H.W. Bush appointed her director of the Census Bureau, she had acquired a reputation as a nonpartisan survey wizard, with a disarming personality and matter-of-fact approach to the job.
She had a profound love of numbers — her grandchildren nicknamed her “the Count” because she always rattled off numbers in conversation, like the precise distance she swam in the pool — as well as communications experience that helped her advocate for the census in interviews and public appearances.
“After 200 years of census-taking and 30 census directors, I was the 31st director and the first woman, so that heightened my visibility a little,” she said in a 1993 oral history for the bureau.
Jumping “immediately into the tidal wave,” as she put it, Dr. Bryant took charge of a decennial survey that involved more than half a million people and cost $2.5 billion.
Often described as the federal government’s largest peacetime mobilization effort, the census affects political redistricting, the division of seats in the House of Representatives and the distribution of federal funds, in addition to providing data on income, education, housing and disabilities issues.
Most of the planning for the 1990 Census was completed before Dr. Bryant joined the bureau. But she quickly found herself facing questions about how the census would reach an increasingly apathetic public, including millions of households that hadn’t bothered to fill out questionnaires in the mail, and how the agency would compensate for the acknowledged undercount of minority groups and big-city residents, an issue that had major repercussions in the battle for political control of statehouses and Congress.
The bureau estimated that during the 1980 Census, it counted 99 percent of the White population but only about 94 percent of African Americans. Officials said that an increase in non-english speakers, undocumented immigrants and homeless people only made the 1990 Census more difficult.
Dr. Bryant backed the recommendation of a bureau steering committee to use statistical modeling to correct the count, citing evidence that suggested the country’s population was about 5.3 million more than the 248.7 million who were officially counted.
“For the first time in history, a tool exists with which to correct the census and make it more accurate,” she told her boss, Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher. “In my opinion,” she added in a memo, “not adjusting would be denying that these 5 million persons exist. That denial would be a greater inaccuracy than any inaccuracies that adjustment may introduce.”
Mosbacher disagreed, rejecting the adjustment method in 1991. Altering the figures opened the census process to political manipulation, he said, and was unreliable for certain states and local communities, even if it proved more accurate on a national level.
His decision infuriated the leaders of cities including New York, where Mayor David Dinkins said the decision not to adjust the census numbers would cost his city “a billion dollars over the next 10 years.”
New York and other communities resumed an earlier lawsuit aimed at pushing the bureau to use statistical adjustments. The suit reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1996 upheld the validity of the 1990 Census, saying that the government had no constitutional obligation to fix the undercount. (The Census Bureau has continued to battle accuracy issues, issuing a report last year that concluded the 2020 Census had undercounted Hispanics, African Americans and other minority groups.)
Dr. Bryant — who was succeeded by Martha Farnsworth Riche, the only other woman to lead the bureau — left the agency after a single four-year term. Her efforts were praised by later directors, including Robert Groves, who oversaw the 2010 Census and said he admired Dr. Bryant’s “character and spirit,” including when it came to backing statistical models to improve the count.
“The merits of adjustment remain a complicated technical matter,” he wrote in an email, “but the courage that Dr. Bryant exercised in supporting the recommendation of the technical staff is memorable.”
The oldest of three children, Barbara Alice Everitt was born in Ann Arbor on April 5, 1926, and grew up in Upper Arlington, Ohio. Her mother, Dorothy, was a homemaker; her father, William, was a telecommunications expert who taught at Ohio State University and became a dean at the University of Illinois UrbanaChampaign.
At times he presented his children with elaborate math problems, as when he asked an 8-yearold Dr. Bryant to determine how many needles had fallen off the family Christmas tree, handing her a thimble, a cup and a bucket so that she could come up with an estimate. “It was her first lesson in statistical sampling,” said her daughter Valentine.
Dr. Bryant studied physics at Cornell University, where she was one of only four women in her class to major in the subject, according to the Detroit Free Press. She also worked as an editor at the student newspaper, envisioning a career in science writing.
After graduating in 1947, she joined the staff of Chemical Engineering, a New York-based trade publication. The next year, she married John Harold Bryant, an electronics engineer she met at a party her father threw for his graduate students at Illinois.
They moved to New Jersey and then to Birmingham, Mich., where Dr. Bryant focused on raising the children while her husband started a microwave electronics company. She helped with publicity and, after her youngest child entered grade school, she decided to resume her career, landing a job as a science coordinator and public relations director at nearby Oakland University.
“Her neighbors disapproved,” the New York Times reported decades later, “saying her decision to work would deprive her children.”
Within a few years she was going back to school, driving 75 miles each way to Michigan State University, where she received a master’s degree in journalism in 1967 and a doctorate three years later. Her dissertation attracted the attention of Robert M. Teeter, who invited her to join Market Opinion Research and rose to become the firm’s president.
While Dr. Bryant focused on public-opinion research, working with health-care companies and transportation agencies, Teeter’s specialty was politics. He worked closely with Bush and recommended Dr. Bryant for the census job after the president’s first choice, redistricting specialist Alan Heslop, came under criticism from congressional Democrats.
In a tribute, current Census Bureau Director Robert Santos described Dr. Bryant as “a trailblazer and a champion of quality survey methods,” adding that she “worked to improve the quality of economic statistics and led the Census Bureau away from penciland-paper interviewing and towards computer-assisted data collection.”
Survivors include her three children, Valentine of Louisville, Randal Bryant of Pittsburgh and Lois Bryant of Ann Arbor; a sister; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 1997.
After leaving the Census Bureau in 1993, Dr. Bryant joined the University of Michigan’s business school and directed the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a national economic indicator. She also devoted herself to recreational swimming, building an indoor pool at her home in Ann Arbor — 50 feet long, 3 feet deep — that she dubbed “The Trench.”