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

DThe U.S. Census Bureau released survey results Thursday showing that during the two-year period of the pandemic in America, the number working at home tripled, home values rose, and rent spending increased by more than one third.

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.

As the COVID-19 period ended, the data release gives us the first real glimpse at American life. This left an unreliable one-year estimate during a period when people’s lives were being drastically altered by the pandemic.

The survey usually relies on the responses of 3.5million households for 11 billion estimates every year about family life, income levels, disability, military service, and work. These estimates are used to determine how federal spending will be distributed, which can lead to hundreds of billions in dollars.

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.

The percentage of married couples in households held steady at 47% over two years, but the proportion of unmarried couples living together grew to 7.2% by 2021 from 6.6% in 2019, while the number of single households rose to 4.7% in 2019. Contrary pop culture depictions of families moving in close together due to the pandemic actually showed a decrease in household sizes from 2.6-2.5 people.

Also, people preferred to stay put. People also stayed put. More than 87% were still living in the same home a year earlier in 2021 as they were in 2019, compared with 86% in 2019. As Americans became more dependent on online learning and remote work, America has become more connected. In 2019, 92.9% of American households had a computer. By 2021, 95% would have a computer. Subscription services for the internet grew to 86% and 90%, respectively.

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. These changes were meant to gather more detail write-in replies from participants. In addition to the social justice protests that followed George Floyd’s death by a Minneapolis police officer, in 2020, as well as other attacks on Asian Americans, the time between surveys overlapped. Experts believe this will have led to multiracial individuals who might previously identify as one race, but now embrace their entire 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. Many people believe it depends on the context and what is happening. This is particularly true for individuals with multiracial background.”

These estimates demonstrate the impact of shuttered theaters and closed theme parks on artists, entertainment, and accommodation workers. They accounted for 9.7% of the total workforce and 8.2% respectively, while others remained stable. From 5.8%, self-employed people increased to 6.1%.

The housing demand increased over the past two years as the percentage of vacant properties fell from 12.1% down to 10.3%. From $240,500 up to $281,000. From 48.5% up to 51%, the percentage of renters whose income exceeds 30% went up from 50% to 69%. Renters were considered rent-burdened in the past if they paid 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.

As the proportion of those working remotely during periods of office starts and stops dropped to 5.7% in 2019, it fell to 18.% by 2021. Nearly half of the workers in District of Columbia were able to commute from their homes, which is the highest in the country. Mississippi, however, had the lowest at 6.3%. Over two years, the percentage of people using public transport to travel to work increased from 5% in 2019 to 2.5% in 2021, as there was concern about the possibility of contracting the flu on subways and buses.

“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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