The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C.'s White population has declined for the first time in two decades

People walk their dogs in the 16th Street Heights neighborhood in Washington on May 19. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

White people fled the District of Columbia in disproportionately high numbers during the first year of the pandemic, reversing a nearly two-decade trajectory during which the city had been steadily adding White residents, according to an analysis of new Census Bureau data.

In the four years preceding the pandemic, the city had been adding non-Hispanic White residents at a rate of around 4,000 to 5,000 each year. But between July 2020 and July 2021, it lost 10,285 people from that group, according to the bureau’s annual population estimates for the nation, states and counties by age, sex, race and Hispanic origin, released Thursday.

Many of the region’s close-in suburbs also lost White residents at a much higher rate than previously, including Montgomery County, Md. as well as Fairfax and Arlington counties and the city of Alexandria in Virginia, according to an analysis of the estimates by William Frey, a senior demographer at the Brookings Institution.

Some losses, especially among the country’s rapidly aging White population, are due to deaths rather than people moving away, but the change in the District was too dramatic to be explained by natural decline alone, Frey said.

Frey said the numbers make it obvious that there was a significant White migration from D.C. and nearby counties from 2020 to 2021, similar to the national trend in urban cores. “Some suburban counties were recipients of White gains,” he said. “But this makes clear, both in D.C. and the U.S., White movement had much to do with city losses.”

The District’s Black population, which had already been declining in recent years, also dropped more precipitously between 2020 and 2021. The city lost 6,689 non-Hispanic Black residents that year, more than three and a half times the number it had lost the previous year. And the majority-Black Prince George’s County, which had also been losing Black residents, lost 8,552 during the first year of the pandemic, around three times as many as the previous year.

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The first year of the pandemic was an outlier in many ways, with major metropolitan areas across the country losing both Black and White people at unusually high rates, though the White losses were more pervasive.

White people made up half of the District’s decline even though they make up only 37 percent of the city’s population.

Regionwide, the Washington metro area lost nearly 8,000 non-Hispanic Blacks after their population had grown each of the previous four years. It also lost over 40,000 non-Hispanic Whites after losing Whites at a much slower pace previously. Population change for Hispanic, Asian, American Indian and mixed race residents remained relatively stable.

The changes come as the country is trending more diverse overall. The 2020 Census marked the first time the absolute number of people who identify as White alone had shrunk since a census started being taken in 1790, and the first time the percentage of White people dipped below 60 percent. The under-18 population is now majority people of color.

Many who left the District are young. More than half were between 15 and 29, whereas the losses in surrounding counties were more evenly dispersed between age groups. Young people who flocked to cities a decade ago after the Great Recession to be close to jobs and ride out the housing crisis are now starting families and seeking more space in the suburbs, Frey said, noting that many left larger cities for suburbs or smaller metropolitan areas.

Urban millennials may therefore have been already primed to relocate, “and the pandemic gave them an extra push,” he said, adding that the District’s plethora of jobs in government, nonprofits, and universities allowed many employees to work remotely, making it easier to move away.

Khara Mayson and her husband, Doug, moved to the District in 2014, and in 2020 they were living in Mount Pleasant with their sons, now 4 and 6. Their house did not have a backyard, but they used to join neighbors for alley parties and host outdoor movie nights in their driveway. Then the pandemic hit.

The social gatherings stopped. Some neighbors left town for extended stays. Doug, a neurologist who works at Georgetown University Hospital, holed up in the basement to avoid potential exposures to the family. Their son’s preschool went virtual, and Khara, who had planned to start a new job on March 12, 2020, instead stayed home with the boys.

By the end of the year, they were looking at houses in the suburbs, and in May of 2021 they moved to Bethesda, where they have an enclosed backyard.

“The kids wanted to run, and we wanted a backyard for those busy feet,” she said. “We wanted to let them run, we wanted to have people over, grill, sit, socially distance.”

Moving to the suburbs was something they had thought they would eventually do, but the pandemic pushed it up, she said. “I can open the front door and they can ride their bikes, they go up and down the neighbors’ driveways and all the neighbors are fine with that. And the backyard is all fenced in and they can play out there. We just were not planning on going for that lifestyle as early as we did.”

Frey cautioned that the unusually high number of departures may not continue. “It might be just a one-time shock that has affected people,” he said, noting that the new estimates reflect the peak twelve months after pandemic lockdowns began and before cities reopened widely.

“It could very well be a blip, but there’s an asterisk,” he said “We probably won’t see a big surge of people moving back to the cities.”