How Affluence Pulls People Away From Their Families

Money and education allow many people to venture farther, without needing to rely on relatives for child care or a place to sleep. But that freedom sometimes goes hand in hand with isolation.

Black-and-white photos of a man, a woman holding a baby, and a baby are collaged onto a peach-colored background with red map lines printed on top.
Illustration by Alex Cochran

My kids love my mom, but they haven’t spent much time with her—at least not in person. They videochat with Gramma about once a week. We Zoomed into her 65th birthday party in March, and the girls held the pictures they’d colored for her up to the camera. But they’ve never actually been to her house. I can count on one hand the number of times she’s babysat either of my kids. (It’s one time.) That isn’t my mom’s fault; I just haven’t lived within a day’s drive of her for nearly a decade.

My husband is in the same boat, and many of our friends, too, live states or even countries away from their parents. So I was surprised to learn that straying from family is unusual in the U.S.: Roughly three in four American adults live within 30 miles of their nearest parent or adult child, according to a 2019 study. Only about 7 percent have their nearest such relative 500 or more miles away.

Plenty of factors affect one’s likelihood of sticking close to family: marital status, cultural norms, and geographic region, to name a few. But much of the variation falls along class lines. Adults with less than 16 years of schooling—which researchers often use as an indicator of socioeconomic status—are 54 percent more likely than those with at least a college degree to live close to or with both of their parents. There are also significant racial disparities. One study found that at age 45, the median distance between white adults and their mother is about 15 miles, but less than three miles for Black adults. Socioeconomic factors such as education and homeownership accounted for a substantial share of that gap.

Economic resources don’t just determine whether families can afford to go on vacation or attend elite schools; they shape how family members depend on one another. Living close to family can come with benefits: a place to sleep or get a free meal, or someone to look after your kids. But money allows people to forgo those perks for other opportunities—and to support one another from a distance. The result is that people with or from means are freer to venture.

There are consequences to living both near and far. You might chase a dream job but find a disconnect with your loved ones that technology can’t bridge, or you might watch, with a thrill, as your baby grows familiar with your parents—just as you grow tired of their disregard for boundaries. Either way, class can shape the most intimate details of our family life—not just when we first build our own life, but forever.

Highly educated individuals tend to move away from their parents, in part because attending college sometimes requires it. High-school graduates leave their hometown for Ann Arbor, Michigan; Boulder, Colorado; or, in my case, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and many of us never find our way back. Education often then leads to specialization; depending on what your field is, a relevant job might not exist in your hometown, Adriana Reyes, a policy-analysis and management professor at Cornell University, told me. Without a specialized degree, by contrast, your job prospects might not be that different from one town to the next. “There’s less pulling you away from where your parents live,” Reyes said.

Families with less education also typically have less income and wealth, increasing their motivation to pool resources—and distance limits the kinds of resources that can be shared. People can wire money or catch up on work drama from anywhere in the country, but you can’t put a grandchild to bed or bathe an elderly parent from out of state. And relying on family can save you from expensive professional care services; that support system is one reason married women with young children are more likely to work if they live close to their mother or mother-in-law, and why young workers living in their parent’s neighborhood bounce back from job displacement more easily than their peers, especially in states with expensive child care.

People with more education don’t always need to depend on family in the same ways. Adult children with solid job prospects are in a better position to handle the rising costs of housing and child care, or a spell of unemployment, on their own. Well-off parents are more likely to be able to afford professional care in old age. And in the event that either does need additional support, money allows family members to help financially from afar.

Education and economic resources explain much of the racial discrepancies in proximity as well. Cultural norms are certainly involved, but Reyes cautioned against overstating their impact. Even when it’s treasured, living close to family may be an adaptive strategy in response to generations of structural racism. Racism shapes opportunity: Residential segregation has no doubt shaped Black Americans’ neighborhood choices, limiting many to the same areas. And Christina Cross, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, told me that one reason wealthier nonwhite families are more likely to live with extended family than their white counterparts is that their relatives are more likely to need their help.

In fact, multiple researchers I spoke with said they suspect that fewer people would live near or with extended family if they could afford not to. Natasha Pilkauskas, a professor at the University of Michigan’s public-policy school, told me that the rate of multigenerational living is considerably lower in the United Kingdom than in the U.S.—which she suspects is a reflection, in part, of the U.K.’s public-housing availability, paid parental leave, and subsidized child care. And there’s evidence that as a single mother’s earned-income tax credit rises, her likelihood of co-residing falls. With more generous family policies and broader access to affordable elder care, more people might very well chase opportunities away from home.

Still, whether farther-flung families is a desirable outcome, in and of itself, is difficult to say. There are drawbacks at every distance, and no one ideal arrangement.

I’ll certainly attest that the freedom to roam, while a privilege, can lead to loneliness. My mother and sisters live close to one another, and every time one of them accidentally sends “On my way” or “You left your sweater here; I’ll bring it to church” to the family group chat, I envy the way their lives are entangled. Catching up by phone feels like exactly that—I am always a few pages behind in our family story. And when a family member is in crisis, I deeply resent my limited ability to help. When my late father, who suffered from a chronic mental illness, was sick, I could offer advice or encouragement. I could ask how he was. But it was agonizing not to see for myself.

And yet my sister, who was living in the same city as our dad when he died, has at times envied the ocean between me and my family. It shielded me from much of the pain and bitterness of my father’s troubles in his final years. It insulates me now from all manner of petty family drama. I have never had to confront a relative about stopping over unannounced or spoiling my kids. There’s little need for setting boundaries across borders.

These trade-offs defy universal valuation. But even if one could determine what distance is best, or even just best for their own family, it might not matter: The same economic factors that pull us toward or away from our families often hold us there. Even for those of us who travel away, re-creating our current life could be impossible in our family’s locale; that’s why many of us moved in the first place. Unless my husband’s employer changes its remote-work policy, going home would likely require a career diversion, and a pay cut. Class influences every aspect of our life, leaving nothing untouched—not even the intricacies of our closest relationships.