The Impact of Rural-Urban Migration on Children Left Behind

Effects are Positive--but Fleeting
July 29, 2012

China’s cities are attracting rural residents in droves. Since the 1990s, the number of Chinese migrating to urban centers from the countryside to find jobs has spiked. According to estimates, some 79 million rural residents migrated to cities in 2000, up from 20 million in 1990 and 45 million in 1995. The reasons for this movement are complex—but include the relaxation of the household registration system, or hukou, which categorizes residents as either urban or rural.

This rural-urban migration has changed the face of the country’s megacities, but its impacts also reach residents of villages left behind by their family members. Most migrants are men—but women, especially young women, also move to cities. As a result, villages are increasingly populated by older women, the elderly, and children. A new IFPRI study looks at the effects of this movement on the nutritional health of small children with one or two absentee parents.

In Unattended but Not Undernourished: Young Children Left Behind in Rural China, Alan de Brauw and Ren Mu show that the rural children of a parent or parents who migrate to cities benefit from their parents increased incomes. This is evident in the fact that their weight (but not their height) improves in their parent’s absence due to increased access to tap water, which improves a child’s hygiene and overall health.

De Brauw and Mu, however, caution that the absence of parents doesn’t necessarily make children better off. As children grow, for example, they may need to take on more household chores, eventually chipping away at their improved weight. An earlier study of the nutritional health of children of migrants by the authors found that children aged 7-12 in migrant households are more likely to be underweight—possibly because they spend more time doing household chores—than children in nonimmigrant households.

The authors conclude in their most recent study that more research into the complex impacts of migration on children—such as difficult-to-measure psychological effects—are essential to fully understand the dimensions of rural-urban migration in China.