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Nearly 1 in 4 Philadelphians worked from home last year, and 5 other takeaways from new Census Bureau data

New data from the Census Bureau reveals just how much changed during the pandemic.

A view of the Delaware River and the Philadelphia skyline.
A view of the Delaware River and the Philadelphia skyline.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

The pandemic wrought upheaval across the Philadelphia region and the country at large.

New data from the Census Bureau reveals just how much changed, including where people lived, how they worked, how they commuted, whether kids were in school, and how many people had internet access.

Unlike the decennial Census, which aims to count every single person in the United States, the American Community Survey annually samples a representative group of U.S. residents and extrapolates those results to the entire population.

The numbers released Thursday measure life in 2021, which can be compared with pre-pandemic baselines to better understand how life changed in the first two years of the pandemic. But the one-year estimates can have large margins of error for some topics, making it sometimes difficult to identify smaller shifts in behavior.

Here are some of the ways life in the Philadelphia region changed during the pandemic, as measured by the new data.

Four times as many Philadelphians worked from home in 2021 as did in 2019

Nearly 1 in 4 Philadelphians over the age of 16 worked from home in 2021, compared to just 1 in 20 in 2019. That represents a more than four-fold increase since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Philadelphians were more likely than the average American to be working remotely in 2021; before the pandemic, the city work-from-home rate was about the same as the national average. Nationally, the share of people working from home more than tripled, going from 5.7% to 17.9%.

Counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey with higher median household incomes saw greater shares of their workforce labor remotely.

In the past year, some major employers and city governments have insisted that their workers return to the office, a push that has been met with some resistance from those who enjoy the flexibility of working from home, dread the commute, or worry about catching COVID on the job.

Public transit was less popular than it was pre-pandemic

With so many workers in the Philadelphia region working from home, fewer proportions of residents reported using public transportation to get to work last year.

In Philadelphia, only 14% of residents commuted by public transit in 2021, compared with 25.5% in 2019. And Philadelphia’s surrounding suburbs, which already had lower public transit rates, saw drops too, though less dramatic ones.

Nationally, the share of American residents commuting by public transit dropped by half, from 5% to 2.5%.

SEPTA and PATCO ridership have still not entirely recovered from the pandemic, appearing to level off at about half the transit system’s pre-pandemic numbers in recent months, according to a September 2022 report from the Center City District & Central Philadelphia Development Corporation.

Regional rail ridership showed the most growth and is expected to pick up in the coming months, according to the report.

Pre-school enrollment dropped in Philadelphia and across the country

Thousands fewer children in Philly were enrolled in school in 2021 compared with 2019, even though the school-aged population stayed about the same.

In 2019, 11.2% of school-age children in Philadelphia — those aged 3 to 17 — weren’t enrolled in school, compared with 18.1% in 2021. Those numbers come with large margins of error, so the exact drop is unclear; somewhere between 2,000 and 21,000 fewer children were enrolled in school in 2021 than in 2019.

The enrollment declines were driven by 3- and 4-year-olds. Enrollment declined across the country, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey were no exceptions.

Mayor Jim Kenney made expanding pre-K education a focus of his time in office, instituting a sweetened-beverage tax in Philadelphia to help fund it, though the city’s program has consistently fallen short of enrollment targets.

Preschool helps children develop social, math, and communication skills. It also allows educators to identify children with special needs so they can get support early in their lives.

More households gained internet access and computers

The pandemic brought a great deal of focus upon digital access as school and work opportunities required access to reliable internet — and devices to use it. Later this year, Pennsylvania will also receive an infusion of federal funding to improve broadband access.

Philadelphia saw a decline in the share of households that said that they did not have a computer. These declines are just outside the margin of error, suggesting that progress was made in improving access. Somewhere between 4,000 and 21,000 more households had access to a computer in 2021 than did in 2019.

Whether broadband internet access improved is less clear because differences in estimates fell within the margin of error. A greater share of Philadelphians reported having access to the internet, but the actual increase in the number of households with an internet subscription ranges from 0 to 23,000.

More college-educated people left Philly than in the past

Earlier data from the Census Bureau showed Philadelphia’s population dropped from July 2020 to July 2021 in the biggest one-year decline since 1975.

The new data, collected over the 2021 calendar year, suggests much of that rush occurred earlier in the 2020 pandemic months. In fact, fewer people who had been in Philadelphia in 2020 left in 2021 than moved from 2018 to 2019 or 2016 to 2017.

But the makeup of people leaving the city changed.

In 2017 and 2019, a majority of the people leaving the city lacked college degrees. By contrast, in 2021, fewer people without degrees left the city, while the population of people leaving with college degrees grew. That could reflect a number of things, including wealthier people moving out of the city and others’ sense that it wasn’t worth moving in a tough economy.

Income inequality rose nationwide, but not in the Philadelphia region

The pandemic, and the major economic chaos it wrought, helped sharpen the divide between rich and poor nationwide. The Gini index, which measures income inequality, captures that on a 0 to 1 scale: Higher values denote greater inequality.

On that measure, the United States as a whole got more unequal in 2021, for the first time since the early 2010s.

But most counties in the Philadelphia region, and Pennsylvania as a whole, continued to see flat or even declining inequality values. Still, Philadelphia remains a highly unequal city, with a much higher Gini value than the nation, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and any of the other counties in the region.