Children of Migrants in China

Children of Migrants in China


Chikako Yamauchi (National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies)


China has experienced rapid economic growth, which attracted millions of rural workers to cities where they typically engage in manufacturing and construction work. While these workers have supported the economic growth, they have often left their children behind in their hometowns. Growing up without the supervision and discipline of their own parents, there is a serious concern about the human capital development of these children. This is because parental care during childhood is one of the most important determinants in forming essential human capital such as physical health, cognitive skills and emotional stability. Despite the importance of this issue, there has been limited evidence on the impact of parental migration on children’s human capital development. We study the impact of parental migration on children’s educational achievement and health status by utilizing the Rural Household Survey of the Rural-Urban Migration in China (RUMiC), which is a large panel survey of 8,000 rural households covering nine provinces that chiefly send out migrants to cities in China.

The country has numerous rural-to-urban migrants as well as their left-behind children. In 2015, 166 million rural workers migrated to cities to work, and they accounted for more than 40% of the total urban labor force (National Bureau of Statistics 2016). Many of these workers leave their children behind primarily because migrant children have limited access to cities’ public services (such as education and health care) due to the country’s registration (hukou) system. A 2006 study by the All-China Women’s Federation estimated that 58 million children aged 0–18 were left behind in rural villages because of parental migration (40 million aged 0–15), accounting for 28% of all rural children. The RUMiC survey of 5,000 migrant households in cities suggested that approximately 57% of migrant children aged 0–15 were left behind in rural villages in 2008.

Education and health of these children are likely to be affected via two channels. On the positive side, additional income brought home by migrant parents can increase investments in children’s education and health. On the negative side, lack of parental care can decrease such investments because parental care is one of the most important determinants of children’s development (e.g., Ginther and Pollak 2003; Lamb 1998; Sigle-Rushton and McLanahan 2006). The net effect of parental migration depends on the relative magnitude of the two effects, and it is largely an empirical issue.

Parental migration is also likely to affect children’s human capital development cumulatively. Human capital theory suggests that education and health outcomes are formed in an accumulative process, in which current and past inputs (such as home learning environments and school inputs for education outcomes; and medical care, diet, and exercise for health outcomes) are combined with an individual’s innate abilities or inherited health endowments (Grossman 2000). However, to date, the literature on the effect of parental migration on left-behind children has largely focused on the contemporaneous effect: that is, the effect of whether parents were recently or are currently absent. The findings in this strand of literature, which is large, are mixed for China as well as other countries (e.g, positive effects are found by Yang (2008) and Lee and Park (2010), while negative effects are found by Antman 2011 and Zhang et al. 2014. Another group of studies found no effect (Chen 2013; Xu and Xie 2015).).

A few other studies have examined how the length of parental absence affects children’s outcomes, also with mixed findings. Therefore, considerable uncertainty remains regarding the relationship between lifetime exposure to parental migration and children’s education and health outcomes.

Other important issue in the investigation of parental migration is how migration of one parent versus both parents, and migration of fathers versus mothers, may differentially affect children’s outcomes. Some of the previous studies examined whether one parent or both parents are away for work show different effects, which is in line with the view in the literature on the effects of family structures on children’s outcomes, which suggests that children exhibit poorer educational attainments when raised by single parents (e.g., Astone and McLanahan 1991).

Another line of literature on evolutionary psychology suggests that the absence of mothers is more detrimental to children because mothers focus more on the investment in current children than fathers, who could have more children in future with different partners because of their longer reproductive period (Biblarz and Raftery 1999). Empirical evidence on the difference between paternal and maternal migration is mixed as well.

Our study contributes to the literature in the following ways. First, we provide evidence for the effect of lifetime, cumulative exposure to parental migration on children’s education and health outcomes. We exploit detailed information on parental migration history, which is available in the RUMiC. To the best of our knowledge, this is the only study that addresses the question on cumulative exposure to parental migration.

Also, we investigate not only the effect of parental migration on children’s outcomes but also the channels through which such effects occur. In particular, we investigate the effect of parental migration on various investments in children’s education, including age of school commencement, boarding status, hours of study, and expenditures on fees and private tutoring.

Our results suggest that children’s lifetime exposure to parental (both paternal and maternal) migration significantly worsens health and education outcomes. For example, if a child’s father was away for one-quarter of his/her life, the child’s weight-for-age and Chinese test score are likely to be 0.33 standard deviation and 6.8 percentage points lower, respectively, than a child whose father was never away. The same amount of exposure to maternal absence is likely to reduce weight-for-age and the Chinese test score by 0.57 standard deviation and 8.8 percentage points, respectively. Note that our estimated effect is a combination of the negative effect of parental absence and the positive effect of remittances generated from parental migration.

Another important finding is that when parents migrate and leave their children behind in rural villages, children spend considerably less time studying after school and are more likely to repeat a grade. These negative effects on inputs into children’s schooling are likely to contribute to the negative effect on their education outcomes measured by the test scores.

Finally, by comparing our results for the impact of children’s lifetime exposure to parental migration with the effect of contemporaneous parental migration, we show that what the literature has commonly estimated as the effect of parental migration (using contemporaneous measures for it) is likely to reflect the lower bound of the full exposure effect.

China’s rural-urban migration has affected tens of millions of rural children. More than 60% of migrant children are left behind by their migrating parents in rural villages. The large negative effect of parental migration on left-behind children’s health and education outcomes uncovered in this study is alarming. If allowed to continue, the intergenerational impact of parental migration may have significant adverse effects on the quality of future labor supply, reinforcing the lack of skills in general and widening income inequality between rural and urban areas.


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-       Biblarz, T. J., & Raftery, A. E. (1999). Family structure, educational attainment, and socioeconomic success: Rethinking the “Pathology of Matriarchy.” American Journal of Sociology, 105, 321–365.

-       Chen, J. J. (2013). Identifying non-cooperative behavior among spouses: Child outcomes in migrant-sending households. Journal of Development Economics, 100, 1–18.

-       Ginther, D. K., & Pollak, R. A. (2003). Does family structure affect children’s educational outcomes? (National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 9628). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from

-       Grossman, M. (2000). The human capital model. In A. J. Culyer & J. P. Newhouse (Eds.), Handbook of health economics Vol. 1A (pp. 347–408). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Elsevier.

-       Lamb, M. (1997). Non-parental childcare: Context, quality, correlates and consequences. In W. Damon, I. E. Sigel, & K. A. Renninger (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology, Vol. 4: Child psychology in practice (5th ed., pp. 73–133). New York, NY: Wiley.

-       Lee, L., & Park, A. (2010, November). Parental migration and child development in China. (Gansu Survey of Children and Families Working Paper). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Penn Libraries, Population Studies Center. Retrieved from

-       National Bureau of Statistics of China, (2016). China Household Survey Yearbook, 2016. Beijing, China: China Statistics Press.

-       Sigle-Rushton, W., & McLanahan, S. (2006). Father absence and child well-being: A critical review. In D. P. Moynihan, T. Smeeding, & L. Rainwater (Eds.), The future of the family (pp. 116–155). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

-       Yang, D. (2008). International migration, remittances and household investment: Evidence from Philippine migrants’ exchange rate shocks. Economic Journal, 118, 591–630.

-       Zhang, H., Behrman, J. R., Fan, C. S., Wei, X., & Zhanga, J. (2014). Does parental absence reduce cognitive achievements? Evidence from rural China. Journal of Development Economics, 111, 181–195.


This column is based on Xin Meng and Chikako Yamauchi (forthcoming) “Children of Migrants: The Cumulative Impact of Parental Migration on Children’s Education and Health Outcomes in China” Demography.