Education of Children Left Behind in Rural China

By Lu, Yao | Journal of Marriage and Family, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Education of Children Left Behind in Rural China


Lu, Yao, Journal of Marriage and Family


Despite China's substantial internal migration, long-standing rural-urban bifurcation has prompted many migrants to leave their children behind in rural areas. This study examined the consequences of out-migration for children's education using longitudinal data from the China Health and Nutrition Survey (N = 885). This study took into account the complex family migration strategies and distinguished various types of migration in China, including different forms of parental migration as well as sibling migration. The results showed that migration of siblings generates benefits for children's education, which is particularly pronounced for girls and children at middle-school levels. But parental migration has not given children left behind a significant advantage in educational prospects as their parents had hoped. Younger children seem to be especially susceptible to the disruptive effect of parental out-migration.

Key Words: child development, children left behind, China, education, migration, sending areas.

In developing societies, an increasing number of children grow up with one parent or no parents (United Nations Children's Fund, 2007). Such situations largely arise from labor migration, in which children are left behind by migrant parents to circumvent the high costs and uncertainties associated with migration. A growing body of literature has examined the well-being of children left behind by international migrants, but very limited work has studied children affected by internal (i.e., within-country) migration, which is also a highly prominent occurrence. China is a prime example, with a record number of domestic migrants and children left behind in rural areas; the number of children left behind has been estimated to be as high as 58 million (China Youth Research Center [CYRC], 2006). This huge number of children left behind is largely a result of China's long-standing institutionalized rural -urban bifurcation that has precluded internal migrants from fully incorporating themselves into cities of their own country.

In the present research I examined the education of children left behind in rural China. The study is informed by an extensive literature on the effects of family disruptions and parent -child separation on child development as well as by a growing literature on the impact of migration on various aspects of the family. A synthesis of these two literatures suggests that the effect of out-migration on children left behind is not completely clear cut. Studies of labor migration have often viewed emigration as a household strategy for improving the socioeconomic circumstances of both the migrants and individuals in the households left behind (Stark & Bloom, 1 985). Research on family separation, by contrast, has underscored the detrimental consequences of parental absence for a range of child outcomes (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994).

What is the overall impact of migration on the educational status of children left behind in China? I investigated this central question using longitudinal data from the China Health and Nutrition Survey. Furthermore, because children of different genders and ages may show different capacities and vulnerabilities, I assessed how the effect of out-migration varies by children's gender and school level. Throughout the analysis, I focused on the main effect of emigration rather than the social and economic mediating mechanisms underlying the effect. I distinguished different groups of children left behind to reflect the complex family arrangements and family migration practices in China (i.e., migration of mother, father, both parents, or a sibling). I used panel fixed-effect (FE) models to account for potential bias in the selection of migrant families.

Previous research has consistently shown that family disruption, especially in the form of parent- child separation, has substantial adverse effects on the education, cognitive development, and psychological well-being of children in a range of different circumstances. …

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