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.”

 ?? U.S. CENSUS Bureau/associated press ?? Barbara Everitt Bryant, who oversaw the 1990 U.S. census, sought to modernize the Census Bureau while navigating criticism over the undercount­ing of minority groups.
U.S. CENSUS Bureau/associated press Barbara Everitt Bryant, who oversaw the 1990 U.S. census, sought to modernize the Census Bureau while navigating criticism over the undercount­ing of minority groups.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States