How Life Changed During the Pandemic, According to the U.S. Census


During the first two years of the pandemic, the number of people working from home in the United States tripled, home values grew and the percentage of people who spent more than a third of their income on rent went up, according to survey results released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Providing the most detailed data to date on how life changed in the U.S. under COVID-19, the bureau’s American Community Survey 1-year estimates for 2021 showed that the share of unmarried couples living together rose, Americans became more wired and the percentage of people who identify as multiracial grew significantly. And in changes that seemed to directly reflect how the pandemic upended people’s choices, fewer people moved, preschool enrollment dropped and commuters using public transportation was cut in half.

The data release offers the first reliable glimpse of life in the U.S. during the COVID-19 era, as the 1-year estimates from the 2020 survey were deemed unusable because of problems getting people to answer during the early months of the pandemic. That left a one-year data gap during a time when the pandemic forced major changes in the way people live their lives.

The survey typically relies on responses from 3.5 million households to provide 11 billion estimates each year about commuting times, internet access, family life, income, education levels, disabilities, military service and employment. The estimates help inform how to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending.

Response rates significantly improved from 2020 to 2021, “so we are confident about the data for this year,” said Mark Asiala, the survey’s chief of statistical design.

While the percentage of married-couple households stayed stable over the two years at around 47%, the percent of households with unwed couples cohabiting rose to 7.2% in 2021 from 6.6% in 2019. Contrary to pop culture images of multigenerational family members moving in together during the pandemic, the average household size actually contracted from 2.6 to 2.5 people.

People also stayed put. More than 87% of those surveyed were living in their same house a year ago in 2021, compared to 86% in 2019. America became more wired as people became more reliant on remote learning and working from home. Households with a computer rose, from 92.9% in 2019 to 95% in 2021, and internet subscription services grew from 86% to 90% of households.

The jump in people who identify as multiracial—from 3.4% in 2019 to 12.6% in 2021—and a decline in people identifying as white alone—from 72% to 61.2%—coincided with Census Bureau changes in coding race and Hispanic origin responses. Those adjustments were intended to capture more detailed write-in answers from participants. The period between surveys also overlapped with social justice protests following the killing of George Floyd, who was Black, by a white Minneapolis police officer in 2020 as well as attacks against Asian Americans. Experts say this likely lead some multiracial people who previously might have identified as a single race to instead embrace all of their background.

“The pattern is strong evidence of shifting self-identity. This is not new,” said Paul Ong, a professor emeritus of urban planning and Asian American Studies at UCLA. “Other research has shown that racial or ethnic identity can change even over a short time period. For many, it is contextual and situational. This is particularly true for individuals with multiracial background.”

The estimates show the pandemic-related impact of closed theaters, shuttered theme parks and restaurants with limited seating on workers in arts, entertainment and accommodation businesses. Their numbers declined from 9.7% to 8.2% of the workforce, while other industries stayed comparatively stable. Those who were self-employed inched up to 6.1% from 5.8%.

Housing demand grew over the two years, as the percent of vacant homes dropped from 12.1% to 10.3%. The median value of homes rose from $240,500 to $281,400. The percent of people whose gross rent exceeded more than 30% of their income went from 48.5% to 51%. Historically, renters are considered rent-burdened if they pay more than that.

“Lack of housing that folks can afford relative to the wages they are paid is a continually growing crisis,” said Allison Plyer, chief demographer at The Data Center in New Orleans.

Commutes to work dropped from 27.6 minutes to 25.6 minutes, as the percent of people working from home during a period of return-to-office starts and stops went from 5.7% in 2019 to almost 18% in 2021. Almost half of workers in the District of Columbia worked from home, the highest rate in the nation, while Mississippi had the lowest rate at 6.3% Over the two years, the percent of workers nationwide using public transportation to get to work went from 5% to 2.5%, as fears rose of catching the virus on buses and subways.

“Work and commuting are central to American life, so the widespread adoption of working from home is a defining feature of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Michael Burrows, a Census Bureau statistician. “With the number of people who primarily work from home tripling over just a two-year period, the pandemic has very strongly impacted the commuting landscape in the United States.”

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