Home / Health / Articles / How did the COVID-19 pandemic change America, according to new Census data?

The American Community Survey (ACS), administered by the US Census Bureau, is the most comprehensive annual survey about the country’s population and housing information. It is used to distribute $675 billion every year, from allocating school lunch funds to planning emergency service coverage.

Due to low response rates, the 2020 ACS data was withheld. As a result, the 2021 data released last week is the first version of the survey showing American economic, household, and social characteristics since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The data confirms big shifts in American society: commuting changed drastically, the housing market continued to tighten, and older Americans were hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic.

How has the increase in people working from home changed commuting patterns?

Between 2019 and 2021, the percentage of workers working from home more than tripled from 5.7% to 17.9%. This included workers who went into an office for less than half of their working week.[1]

The percentage of workers using public transportation to commute was halved, dropping from 5% to 2.5% over the same time period. Driving alone continued to be the most common method of transportation to work.

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Among the 50 states, Washington and Maryland had the highest percentage of the labor force who worked from home at 24%. Mississippi had the lowest, with 6.3% of employees working from home. Washington, DC had 48% of employees work from home, much higher than the 17.9% national rate.

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Across the board, the length of commutes also decreased. While nearly one in 10 commuters had to travel at least an hour to get to work in 2019, that percentage dropped to 7.7% in 2021. The percentage of commutes lasting longer than 30 minutes also declined.

During the same time period, a higher share of commuters took less than 15 minutes to get to work.

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How has the housing market changed since the beginning of COVID-19?

In 2020, the US had the highest single-year increase in average home prices since 1992. Meanwhile, new housing construction has not kept up with population growth for the last 20 years. Americans are faced with an expensive housing market where demand is outpacing supply.

Data from the ACS reflects this reality. Vacancy rates, meaning the percentage of units that are on the market, continued to fall from 2019 to 2021. The vacancy rate of homes available to rent decreased from 6% to 5.2%. For prospective homebuyers, homeowner vacancy rates dipped below 1% for the first time. This means that in 2021, both buyers and renters had proportionally fewer options than they did in previous years.

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Vacancy rates varied by state, but lower homeowner vacancy rates tended to correlate with lower rental vacancy rates. Idaho had the lowest homeowner vacancy rate in 2021 at 0.3%; Washington, DC and North Carolina had the highest at 1.9% and 1.5%, respectively. North Dakota had the highest rental vacancy rate at 10.7%, more than double the national average.

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How have housing costs changed during the pandemic?

Housing costs grew as a share of household budgets during the pandemic. One way the Census Bureau measures this is the proportion of households that spend at least 35% of their incomes on housing costs. Housing costs include rent and utilities for renters, and mortgage payments if applicable, loan interest, insurance, utilities, and other living costs for homeowners.

In 2019, the percentage of renters spending at least 35% of their gross income on rent and utilities dipped below 40% for the first time in a decade. In 2021, it increased to 42%. The percentage of homeowners with housing costs above 35% also increased from 2019 to 2021.

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While the increase in housing costs hit renters harder, recent rising interest rates mean the cost of a mortgage for new home buyers is also rising.

How did America’s elderly population change during the pandemic?

COVID-19 hit the elderly population especially hard. Reversing a long trend, the population of adults over 85 in the US dropped between 2019 and 2021, even as the population of adults 65 and older increased.

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In 2018, the US Census Bureau projected that there would be 56.1 million Americans 65 and older in 2020; in 2021, there were 55.9 million Americans 65 and older. This difference can be largely attributed to the estimated 545,000 deaths of Americans 75 and older involving COVID-19 as of Sep. 14, 2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Even as COVID-19 impacted the elderly population though, the changes in the 85-and-older population differed across states. From 2019 to 2021, six states had increases in the number of adults at least 85 years old. The other 44 states and Washington, DC had decreases in the 85 and older population, with Mississippi, Maine, and West Virginia having the greatest declines.

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Workers indicated the mode of transportation they used most often during the week of completing the survey; for “hybrid” employees working five days a week, this would include workers who commuted into the office at least three times. Those working seven days a week were considered working from home if they went into an office four days or more.