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D.C. was the top city for remote work in 2021, census data show

The portion of people working primarily from home in Washington, D.C., last year was the highest of any large city in the nation.

Traffic is light on K Street in Northwest Washington in March 2021. Office workers have returned downtown, but not at pre-pandemic levels. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The portion of people working primarily from home in Washington, D.C., last year was the highest of any large city in the nation, with nearly half of workers 16 and older working remotely, about seven times more than before the pandemic.

The numbers were up everywhere, with nearly 18 percent of people across the United States working from home last year, three times the portion who were just before the pandemic, according to Census Bureau data released Thursday. But in many large urban and suburban jurisdictions the share was much higher, reflecting a massive shift in how Americans work and coming as many companies try to woo, coerce or threaten employees into returning to the office.

In the District, 48.3 percent of employees worked remotely in 2021, compared with around 6 or 7 percent between 2017 and 2019. Second on the list of the biggest 50 cities was Seattle (46.8 percent), followed by San Francisco (45.6 percent), Austin (38.8 percent) and Atlanta (38.7 percent).

Among metro areas over 1 million in population, the Washington, D.C., region ranked third in remote work, at 33.1 percent, just below the San Francisco and San Jose metro areas (35.1 percent and 34.8 percent, respectively).

The data came from the 2021 American Community Survey, which provides annual estimates based on questionnaires filled out by 3.5 million households. Last year marked the highest number and percentage of people working from home recorded since the ACS began in 2005, the bureau said.

Of the five top large counties for working from home, three were in the Washington metro area, with the District in the top slot and Fairfax and Montgomery counties fourth and fifth, at 37.2 and 37.1 percent, respectively.

All the top-ranked cities, counties and metro areas saw radical increases compared with before the pandemic, when the portion of people working from home in those places was between around 5 and 10 percent.

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Between 2019 and 2021, the number of people working from home tripled from 5.7 percent (around 9 million people) to 17.9 percent (27.6 million people), according to the new data. States with the highest percentage of home-based workers were Washington (24.2 percent), Maryland (24.0 percent), Colorado (23.7 percent) and Massachusetts (also 23.7 percent).

The percentage of people working from home correlates strongly with the portion of workers who are college graduates, according to an analysis that William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, did for The Washington Post. According to the new census data, 63 percent of people 25 and older in the District have a bachelor’s degree or higher, making it the second-most-highly-educated city after Seattle, at 68.3 percent.

That number reflects a continuing increase in the District’s college-educated population in recent years; in 2016 it was 56.8 percent, up from 45.9 percent in 2006 and 33.3 percent in 1990. (Nationwide, 35 percent of people 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, up from 33.1 percent in 2019.) The next three most highly-educated cities in the country are San Francisco, Austin and Atlanta, correlating with the highest remote-work cities.

“These are by and large magnets for younger, well-educated, computer-savvy adults often tied to the tech industry who are well positioned to work from home,” Frey said.

The share of people with college degrees varies widely by race in the District, where 93 percent of White people are college graduates, by far the highest portion for a large city (Atlanta and San Francisco are second and third, at 80.4 and 79.5 percent, respectively). Among Black residents the portion drops to 33.7 percent (seventh among the 50 biggest U.S. cities); among Hispanics it is 57.4 percent (first among the biggest cities); and among Asians it is 79.9 percent (second after Atlanta).

More than a quarter of Black people in the District, 27.7 percent, live below the poverty line, compared with 5.1 percent of Whites, 10.5 percent of Hispanics and 16.1 percent of Asians, according to the new data; the overall rate for the city is 16.5 percent, 4 or 5 percentage points higher than just before the pandemic but slightly lower than the 2000s and much of the 2010s, when it ranged between about 17 and 20 percent. (Nationwide, the portions are 9.5 percent for Whites, 21.8 percent for Blacks, 17.5 percent for Hispanics and 10.2 percent for Asians.)

The unusual circumstances of the pandemic created hardship offset by significant federal investment for low-income people in the city, said Erica Williams, executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Even as people lost income because of pandemic restrictions and illness, federal aid programs such as the child tax credit “absolutely made a difference. Things could have been much, much worse without those massive investments,” she said, adding that the credit had cut child poverty in half in the District.

A report this week from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that “due chiefly to the Child Tax Credit, child poverty fell sharply in 2021 and reached a record low of 5.2 percent” nationwide. That credit ended this year.

Black median household income in the District is $52,812, well below the city overall, at $90,088; for Whites in the District it is $145,975. Unemployment among Black residents in the District was up slightly in the first quarter of 2022 compared with a year earlier, and is more than seven times that of White workers, Williams said. “So even in this moment of recovery, there are obviously a lot of barriers to work … that Black folks face in the District that they don’t face in other areas.”

For example, the city has “a lot of high-paying jobs that require certain skills and education that a lot of Black workers in the District don’t get access to or haven’t received,” she said.

In the greater Washington metropolitan region, the portion of Black people living in poverty is 13.2 percent, and Black people in the metro area have a median household income of $81,696, putting it second among metro areas nationwide.

Many people who work in the city live outside it, Williams said, adding that nonresidents who work there have on average higher earnings than people who live and work in the city.

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The new data also reflected a slowdown in the number of foreign-born people in the United States, with the past few years reflecting the smallest gains since the 1970s. Between 2011 and 2017, the country gained between 400,000 and 1.4 million foreign-born residents per year, but from 2018 to 2021, the gains fell to around 200,000 a year or lower, a result of more restrictive immigration policies under President Donald Trump along with the pandemic, Frey said.

“Given that our population growth is almost zero, something’s going to need to change,” he said. “That’s going to continue, and it’s not just a pandemic problem.”