Families traveling from far-flung places, returning home for the holidays. That image of an American Christmas fits the perception of Americans as rootless, constantly on the move to seek opportunity even if it means leaving family behind.
Yet that picture masks a key fact about the geography of family in the United States: The typical adult lives only 18 miles from his or her mother, according to an Upshot analysis of data from a comprehensive survey of older Americans. Over the past few decades, Americans have become less mobile, and most adults — especially those with less education or lower incomes — do not venture far from their hometowns.
The data reveal a country of close-knit families, with members of multiple generations leaning on one another for financial and practical support. The trend will continue, social scientists say, as baby boomers need more care in old age and the growing number of two-income families seek help with child care.
The United States offers less government help for caregiving than many other rich countries. Instead, extended families are providing it, whether they never moved apart or moved back closer when the need arose.
Overall, the median distance that Americans live from their mother is 18 miles, and only 20 percent live more than a couple hours’ drive from their parents. (Researchers often study the distance from mothers because they are more likely to be caregivers and to live longer than men.)
To some extent, people’s proximity to their parents is a reflection of opportunity: The biggest determinants of how far people venture from home are education and income. Those with college and professional degrees are much more likely to live farther from their parents than those with a high school education, in part because they have more job opportunities in big cities, and especially if spouses are juggling the career aspirations of two professionals.
Wealthier people can afford to pay for services like child and elder care, while low-income families are more likely to rely on nearby relatives. It seems likely that the more education someone has, the farther from home they go, said Robert A. Pollak, an economist at Washington University’s Olin Business School in St. Louis, who studies the economics of family. Middle-class and educated two-income couples — say, a schoolteacher and a nurse — seem to be more likely to live near parents than those with professional degrees.
“It speaks to a class divide in the population,” Pollak said. “Particularly as you go further down the socioeconomic scale, people are living pretty close to their parents, and this means they’re able to provide help.”
Families live closest in the Northeast and the South and farthest apart on the West Coast and in the Mountain States. Part of the reason is probably cultural — Western families have historically been the least rooted — but a large part is geographical: People live farther apart in rural areas.
Married people live farther from their parents than singles, and women are slightly likelier than men to leave their hometowns. Blacks are more likely to live near their parents than whites, while Latinos are no more likely to live near their parents but more likely to live with them, according to data from Pollak and Janice Compton, an economist at the University of Manitoba.
In these family dynamics, a key change is the role of women, who have typically been the nation’s unpaid caregivers. Now that most women also have jobs, if the family doesn’t have extra income to pay for child care or elder care, the financial and time strain become intense.
“The culture of caring is not well rewarded in this country,” said Anne Tumlinson, a health care policy analyst and consultant who writes about elder care at Daughterhood.org. “You go from raising your kids and dealing with all the challenges of compromising your career that come along with that, and then all of a sudden you’re thrust back into a caregiving role.”
Economists, always eager to quantify things like love and kinship, see family caregiving dynamics during adulthood as a series of trade-offs and payments — of either time or money. Grandparents help care for grandchildren; their own children will help care for them later.
Career and income affect which type of payment families choose. The most-cited reason for living near home is the tug of family ties, while the most-cited reason for leaving is job opportunities, according to a Pew Research Center survey. It found that with the exception of college or military service, 37 percent of Americans had never lived outside their hometown and 57 percent had never left their state.
Culture also plays a role: Mexican-American households are more likely to provide in-person care, while Euro-American households are more likely to provide financial support, according to research led by Natalia Sarkisian, a sociologist studying families at Boston College.
Grown children are the single greatest source of care for the elderly in the United States, according to AARP. But the supply of family caregivers is not keeping pace with demand, AARP found: There are now seven potential family caregivers for every person over 80, which is expected to fall to four by 2030.
Compared with people in two other countries with aging populations, Germany and Italy, Americans are much more likely to say that elder care is a family’s personal responsibility, not a governmental one. Yet Americans are also less likely to say they are providing their parents with help, another Pew Research Center survey found in May.
Researchers say that to prepare for the influx of aging baby boomers, Americans will need to create new options for elder care, like more affordable, professional caregivers to help family members, or group living arrangements in which elderly people can help one another.
In the meantime, adult children who never moved far from home become the default caregivers in many families. In others, they move home or, increasingly, aging parents move near their adult children, which enables the children to continue their careers and not uproot their own offspring.
Along with research partners, HwaJung Choi of the Michigan Center on the Demography of Aging studied families after parents had a cardiovascular problem, like a stroke or a heart attack. Those parents with grown children nearby were less likely to go to a nursing home, and it increased the chance that family members moved closer together, especially if the parent had a daughter or had no spouse.
When Kathy Kenyon’s parents developed Alzheimer’s, they lived in her hometown, Baton Rouge, La., 1,200 miles away from her in Washington, D.C. She managed their finances and in-home help from afar, but it became too difficult.
“They would fall or have a seizure or something, and I would be on an airplane, and it was very hard to operate as a professional,” said Kenyon, 63, a health care lawyer.
Neither she nor her three brothers wanted to move home, so she moved her parents eight blocks from her. This year, after she and her husband retired, they moved with her parents to their vacation home in Red Lodge, Mont., where they live together and also employ professional caregivers.
Generational help goes the other direction too, as grown children turn to their parents for child care for their own children.
Most families that earn less than $30,000 a year depend on family members for child care, while those that earn more than $75,000 are more likely to enroll young children in day care. Yet dual-earner families of all income levels need backup sometimes, and without family support, one parent, usually the mother, can feel forced to stop working.
Another study by Pollak and Compton found that for married women with children, labor force participation increased by as much as 10 percentage points when they lived near their mothers or mothers-in-law, and unanticipated child care needs seemed to play a big role.
Abigail Breckenridge’s 10-month-old son, Cliff, is in full-time day care while his parents work. But last week he was sick and had to stay home; a few weeks before, Breckenridge had an emergency appendectomy. Both times she asked her mother, Pam, who lives a mile away in Seattle, to watch Cliff.
Breckenridge said she returned to Seattle, where she grew up, for business school, largely because she knew she wanted to raise a family near her parents.
“I always knew I would go back to work after having a kid, and I actually can’t imagine doing it without my parents close by,” she said. “I feel lucky and also completely incredulous that people do it without their families.”
Many people feel that way. Perhaps it is a testament to the American family that the safety net for many of them are relatives. But as baby boomers age, and as more women work and couples have fewer children, that net figures to become increasingly strained.