Republished with permission from St. Olaf College. View the original article, which was published Dec. 2, 2020.
Data permeates many aspects of our digitally connected world. But while many people associate data analysis with career fields such as mathematics, computer science, and the natural sciences, data and statistics play an increasingly important role in the humanities and other areas — and Oles are some of the pioneers in these interdisciplinary fields.
Susan Brower is one of these Oles, combining her studies in social sciences with data analysis to help community leaders make decisions. As the Minnesota state demographer, she uses data to influence policy and communicate findings on population changes. With a Minnesota congressional seat at stake in this year’s census, her role is crucial in making sure that population data is collected and distributed accurately.
A Minneapolis native, Brower majored in social work at St. Olaf. She then went on to earn her master’s degree in public policy from the University of Minnesota and her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Michigan, with a focus on population studies. In 2012, she became Minnesota’s state demographer, only the third person to hold that position.
Here, Brower talks about her work as the Minnesota state demographer and the influence St. Olaf has had on her career path.
Can you describe your current role?
As the state demographer, I provide data and insights that help public, private, and nonprofit leaders make decisions based on the trends that are shaping the state. Demographics move very slowly. We can see trends coming for decades and we can also see where they are headed for decades into the future. It’s my job to help community leaders understand how these trends will shape policies, institutions, and economics and social life in the years to come.
What past experiences led you to this position?
This role is pretty specialized, so I suppose my formal schooling did the most to bring me to this role. I studied social work at St. Olaf, and while no one would say that social work is heavily geared toward math or statistics, it definitely prepped me to understand how complex systems operate and how they impact individuals. More broadly, my education at St. Olaf also taught me to trust my instincts and insights. When I moved on to study public policy at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs, I began to appreciate that I had quantitative tools at my disposal. Being able to see and interpret data was another way that I could contribute to ongoing policy discussions, and this ability helped me uncover the interesting views that demographics bring. Studying population studies at the University of Michigan elevated and enhanced the analytic skills that I would need to do my job well.
What is at stake in this year’s census and what changes do you anticipate?
It is really hard to overstate just how much is at stake with the census count. The 2020 Census will help determine Minnesota’s political representation for the next decade — not only in Washington, D.C., but at the state, county, and city levels too. In addition to political representation, the census guides the distribution of more than $24.7 billion in federal funds to Minnesota residents each year in programs that support housing, health care, public safety, education, and on and on and on. That’s about $4,400 per person per year. While Minnesota tends to have high levels of civic participation that carry over to high census participation, there are some demographic groups and geographic areas that are more likely to be undercounted. My office has been working hard to make sure that everyone — especially those who tend to be missed by censuses and surveys — understands what’s at stake.
Once the 2020 Census data are published, I expect to see that the state has continued to grow between 2010 and 2020, that we have become older, on average, and more racially and ethnically diverse. I know that we will see these general trends, but we will also be given more details about just exactly how and where these trends are unfolding across the state. This is especially important for rural areas of our state that don’t have the population numbers to get a clear picture of their communities from other surveys that happen between censuses.
How do you use data when working on the census and other projects relating to population statistics?
We use data to understand changes that are occurring and to try to communicate those changes to our stakeholders. We use data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau as part of the decennial census, but we also use data from the Census Bureau and other sources that are collected through ongoing surveys. We analyze whatever is at our disposal that will give us the most complete picture that we can produce. That means that we end up evaluating a lot of different data sets. Sometimes when we don’t have one best source of data, we end up combining data sources into new, modeled estimates. We also use data sources including administrative records — like data on births and deaths — to create population projections. Again, this requires that we evaluate the quality of the data source, and choose the best data source and method to employ for the current purpose.
What is the most rewarding part of your job? The most challenging?
When I provide information that helps guide a policy decision, it’s very rewarding. Sometimes we provide data for U.S. senators or representatives, for a state legislative committee, or for a city council member. It feels really good to be contributing to policy in this way. But I think it’s equally rewarding to be able to provide data and insights for regular people who are working to make their communities better places to live. Community members will often come to us knowing their own experience very well, but not knowing how representative that experience is. Oftentimes we are able to help “arm” them with the data they need to make a case for the changes they want to see in their communities.
I don’t like politics much, so being in the same orbit of state politics isn’t something I would have sought out. Fortunately, most of the politicians I come into contact with are genuinely trying to do good work for their districts, and they know that my job is to provide good information, not to take sides.
Can you describe your experience at St. Olaf and how it influenced your career path? Who were your faculty mentors?
I definitely felt a very strong connection to my home department, Social Work. Professor of Social Work and Family Studies Mary Carlsen ’79 was my faculty mentor, and she also taught most of our classes. Our classes were often the same five to seven people, especially in my junior and senior years. To me, it felt kind of like we were a quirky family. We were fond of each other and stuck with each other. I guess there was a comfort and safety there, which is a great place to launch from. Social work gave me a framework to be able to think about complex, interconnected systems.
I also had another mentor, Pete Cattrell, who was an adjunct professor of sociology. He was the person who taught me to trust my instincts in interpreting what I thought I was seeing out in the world. I still keep in regular contact with Pete, and we’ve had some opportunities to collaborate on projects.
Can you tell us about some of these collaborative projects?
For example, we’ve worked on a project recently to anticipate the impacts of climate change on Minnesota and its economy. Climate change is poised to alter the economy in a number of ways and to create new, sizable migration flows to Minnesota. The state has an opportunity to resettle people who will be displaced as water levels rise and agricultural patterns force people to live in new parts of the U.S. and the world. We can either prepare for the changes that are headed our way or we can react to them as they are imposed upon us. Our hope is that people in Minnesota will choose to do the former.
You have extensively researched the impact of immigration on Minnesota. Can you share some of your key findings and why they’re important, particularly as the baby boomers age?
Yes, my office makes labor force projections that help state leaders plan for the future and understand the role of international immigration as a vital component of our state’s economic growth. Federal public policies haven’t often aligned with the reality on the ground in Minnesota, but in the past 5 to 10 years, labor force growth has slowed considerably as baby boomers have begun to retire. We’ve seen worrisome gaps open up between what employers need to maintain and grow their businesses, and the availability of workers to meet those needs. Immigration is an important way we can fill those gaps, but so far, the level of immigration in Minnesota has not been enough to fully meet the needs of employers. In fact, federal policies have served to exacerbate the shortages here. We’ll keep providing the data as the state and the country grapples with immigration policy, and hopefully we’ll be able to inform that discussion with the realities here in our state.