Barbara Bryant, First Woman to Lead the Census Bureau, Dies at 96

Barbara Everitt Bryant, the first woman to lead the United States Census Bureau, who dove into roiling waters when she took the job in late 1989 as the agency was beginning the contentious decennial census of 1990, died on March 3 at a senior living center in Ann Arbor, Mich. She was 96.

Her daughter Linda Bryant Valentine confirmed her death.

Dr. Bryant was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in December 1989; she came to the job from Market Opinion Research, a Detroit company specializing in polling data, where she had been senior vice president. The process of taking the national census once a decade begins years in advance and was already well underway.

It was also already drawing criticism and challenges. In 1988, New York City joined with other municipalities and some states in a lawsuit seeking to require the bureau to do something about the chronic undercounting problem that left many minority groups, the homeless and others underrepresented in census figures.

“There are so many parts of the operation and also such enormous media and congressional scrutiny that you felt as though you were constantly fighting off the critics,” Dr. Bryant said in an oral history recorded for the bureau in 1993. “The tendency, partly orchestrated because of the lawsuit, I think, was for everybody to come in and be a critic.”

The undercount issue would ultimately put her at odds with her boss, the secretary of commerce, Robert Mosbacher. There were other problems that she inherited as well, including a certain backwardness in adapting to the computer age and a failure to adjust census taking to demographic changes like the proliferation of nontraditional households.

“She knew she was walking into a tough job, including decisions on census processes made before her tenure that she nevertheless had to live with,” Margo J. Anderson, a census scholar whose books include “The American Census: A Social History” (1988), said by email. “She handled the implementation of the census and the undercount controversies with aplomb.”

Dr. Bryant became the public face of the 1990 census, appearing on television and in newspaper interviews to urge people to participate. She knew that many people, whether because they were apathetic, they distrusted government or they were simply hard to reach, would not be easily counted, and that minority groups and the homeless were among those who were disproportionately overlooked.

“It’s upside-down marketing,” she told The New York Times in the spring of 1990, describing efforts the bureau was making to overcome the biases. “Eighty or 90 percent of our effort is targeted at the 10 percent we’re most likely to miss.”

Dr. Bryant was so concerned about not dampening participation that when the soap opera “All My Children” broadcast an episode in early 1990 in which a character wormed information out of a housekeeper by pretending to be a census taker, Dr. Bryant wrote the show’s creators in protest and asked them to include pro-census messages in future episodes. (They didn’t.)

Her bigger battle, though, was over how to account for those millions of people who, no matter what extra efforts were made, would not be counted.

There was considerable debate about whether statistical models could be used to adjust the numbers produced by the traditional census to account for the invisible populations. It was a question with political ramifications, since census numbers are used to apportion congressional seats, allocate federal aid and more.

Adjusting to correct the undercount, which was estimated at five million people, would benefit urban, generally Democratic areas; Dr. Bryant was serving in a Republican administration.

“The technical staff of the bureau, after months of analysis, supported adjustment, while the Commerce Department leadership ultimately decided to reject such adjustment,” Robert M. Groves, provost of Georgetown University, who worked under Dr. Bryant and was later director of the Census Bureau himself, said by email. “The merits of adjustment remain a complicated technical matter, but the courage that Dr. Bryant exercised in supporting the recommendation of the technical staff is memorable.”

Among the reasons given by Mr. Mosbacher, the commerce secretary, for rejecting the adjustment was that it might introduce its own inaccuracies into the data. Dr. Bryant, though, saw the issue differently.

“In my opinion, not adjusting would be denying that these five million persons exist,” she said. “That denial would be a greater inaccuracy than any inaccuracies that adjustment may introduce.”

The question ultimately landed in front of the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1996 that the decision not to adjust the numbers had been within the secretary’s discretion. But the undercount issue persists.

Beyond the controversy, Dr. Bryant, who served until President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, came into office in 1993, was credited with modernizing the department and its approach.

“She brought her long experience in survey research to bear to press for new thinking about how to take the census,” Professor Anderson, professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said, “ideas that would bear fruit in the practice of later censuses.”

Barbara Alice Everitt was born on April 5, 1926, in Ann Arbor. Her mother, Dorothy (Wallace) Everitt, was a homemaker, and her father, William, was a professor of engineering at the Ohio State University and later dean at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics at Cornell University in 1947, thinking of a career as a science writer, but when she married John Harold Bryant in 1948 she put her plans on hold to raise their three children. With the family living in Birmingham, Mich., she resumed her education, earning a master’s degree in journalism at Michigan State University in 1967 and a Ph.D. in communication there in 1970.

By the time she earned her doctorate she was already doing work for Market Opinion Research, and she began working there full time. The company’s president, Robert Teeter, left in 1987 to work on Mr. Bush’s successful presidential campaign, and, Dr. Bryant said in the oral history, “it’s rather clear to me who suggested to the transition team that I be the director of the Census Bureau.”

After leaving the bureau, she joined the faculty of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, where she was instrumental in developing the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which measures how satisfied consumers are with products and services in a variety of industries. She retired as a research scientist emerita in 2008.

John Bryant died in 1997. In addition to her daughter Linda, Dr. Bryant is survived by another daughter, Lois Beth Bryant; a son, Randal; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

In a 1994 interview with The Detroit Free Press, Dr. Bryant was asked her advice for women who were just starting careers.

“Remember, each decision you make is not final,” she said. “A career is made up of a lot of forks in the road. Make the more daring decision, not the conservative one, but once you decide, don’t look back and wonder ‘what if.’”

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