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Q&A: How Census data can address health disparities in Illinois

Headshot of Robert Santos. Part of an American flag is seen hanging in the background.
Courtesy of U.S. Census Bureau
U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Santos

Robert Santos — head of the U.S. Census Bureau — Zoomed into Illinois State University on Monday to address the 2023 Minority Health Conference. His virtual keynote speech covered how health professionals, including those local to McLean County, can use Census tools and data to decrease health disparities.

His address was titled "Framing Health Research for Communities of Color and the Census Bureau Data that Enable It."

Santos spoke to WGLT after the speech to share his insights.

Interview edited for clarity.

WGLT: I'd like to start by tackling the first half of your address. How should we be framing health research?

Santos: What I did in the first half was talk about the value of bringing one's whole self to the table in terms of creating more environments to get new insights. So we're talking about bringing your values, your culture, your life experience, as well as your technical training to bear on research and research questions. And when you do that, you end up creating unique perspectives that are yours alone, and that can add insight that otherwise would not have been attained.

What have we been getting wrong? How do we fix the way that we are framing our health research?

Santos: Well, the way I like to look at it is that there is no wrong and right. There is always better and more insightful. That means that in addition to the typical things that are being taught by professors and researchers, to students about how to approach particular social problems with analytic data, you allow time for people to reflect using their culture, their values, their life experiences, because that can end up creating a different set of more relevant questions to be asked, and a different way of looking at the information collected, and the inferences the insights that you gain, to add value.

With this conference — the Minority Health Conference — a focus is on health equity, on racial equity. So if you can speak to that issue at all, and how that plays in here, and the census as well, how that plays into it.

Santos: The issue of equity — it will always exist. However, you can't define it unless you have the data to show, unless you have the evidence base. And what I did today at this conference was offer several different census data products that can be used to help elucidate, identify, and then characterize inequities that exist in our society, whether they be racial, or gender, or, or whatever.

Can you provide an example of one of those inequities in what we see today?

Santos: Certainly, there are inequities that our census data can show in terms of people's vulnerability to natural disasters. We have a tool called the Community Resilience Estimates that shows risk factors associated with different communities and neighborhoods within communities at the Census Tract level. And one can pretty easily find that communities that historically are communities of color, also tend to have the higher levels of risk factors associated with them in terms of poverty, availability of the vehicle, broadband access, health insurance access, unemployment, and so forth. And that means that those communities with higher levels of those risk factors that tend to be communities of color, would have a harder time reacting to a flood, or a natural disaster like a wildfire, or a snowstorm or tornado, those types of things.

Ultimately, how can we use this data? How can this data inform at a community level, to impact even the local community here of McLean County, Bloomington-Normal?

Santos: We have data tools that we've been creating, and that currently exist, that are easy for community members to access and to absorb. They are data visualizations that start with a map of the United States, and then you can — by simply clicking on different geographies — go to the state level, the county level, the city level, the Census Tract level, and sometimes even the block group level depending on the data products. There are tools like My Community Explorer, that are actually very good at characterizing the demographics, the painting a portrait of who a local community is at the Census Tract level. We have a census business builder that does the same, but also adds economic data, so you can look at things like a customer base, if you're planning on creating a business, you can look at competitors. You can look at employee bases, if you're putting in a manufacturing plant. There's all kinds of rich data at the neighborhood-level that's available.

Where does the individual in a community fall in this conversation?

Santos: Individuals make up communities, and so the characteristics of individuals are of high importance, whether it be at the neighborhood, or the city or state or higher levels. We are becoming an increasingly and beautifully diverse nation, and so it's really important for individuals to see themselves in data and in communities so they can have a better understanding of who their neighbors are, what their needs may be, depending on the characteristics whether they're disabled, unemployed, their income levels, their education levels. We provide data so that you can get that picture so that an individual not only sees themselves, but they see their neighbors and their communities, and they can do better planning.

We depend on your support to keep telling stories like this one. WGLT’s mental health coverage is made possible in part by Report For America and Chestnut Health Systems. Please take a moment to donate now and add your financial support to fully fund this growing coverage area so we can continue to serve the community.

Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.