The average American lives just 18 miles away from his or her mother, according to a recent report in The New York Times. In parts of the South, that number is just six miles, and in New York, it’s only eight miles.
After analysing data from a comprehensive survey of older Americans, Quoctrung Bui and Claire Cain Miller of The Upshot conclude that those with higher incomes and education are more likely to move far away from home. This, they say, is because wealthier people can afford to pay for services like child care and elder care, while lower-income families are more likely to rely on nearby relatives for support.
“If you think about your family and what they can possibly do for you, that is in itself a form of income,” Bui tells NPR.
“You know, you rely on your mum to take care of your children or your mum relies on you to help her with her daily activities. Those are things that actually have some sort of value. And so in a way, if you feel compelled to move away from your family, then this idea is you have to be compensated in maybe extra money or more prestige or better job opportunities to kind of offset that cost,” he says.
Bui and Cain Miller explain that, with women — who have typically been the nation’s unpaid caregivers — working more today than ever before, if the family doesn’t have extra income to pay for caregiving, the financial and time strain can take a toll.
In the US, the amount of extra income needed to pay for caregiving is staggering. Child care is the biggest budget item for typical American families, coming in at a whopping $18,000 a year, according to Care.com. The average cost of elder care can range from $18,000 a year for adult day health care to $91,000 a year for a private room in a nursing home, according to a survey commissioned by Genworth Financial.
Even middle-class, educated, two-income couples are more likely to live near parents than those with higher-earning careers, Bui and Cain Miller report.
Without family support, parents of all income levels struggle to provide backup caregiving, which can have negative effects on a mother’s workforce participation. Janice Compton, an economist at the University of Manitoba, and Robert A. Pollak, an economics of family researcher at Washington University’s Olin Business School, found that married women with young children were as much as 10% more likely to work when they lived near their mothers or mothers-in-law.
“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,” one mother tells The Upshot. “I feel lucky and also completely incredulous that people do it without their families.”