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Parental Migration and Early Childhood Development in Rural China


March 13, 2020

Sean Sylvia
Sean Sylvia

Over the last several decades in China, millions of rural residents have migrated to urban areas for work. As parents migrate, they’ve left their young children behind with other family members in the countryside.

A new study co-led by Sean Sylvia, an Assistant Professor of Health Policy and Management at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and a Faculty Fellow at the Carolina Population Center, evaluated the effects of maternal migration on early childhood development outcomes. The results, published in the journal Demography, found that maternal migration before children reach 30 months of age may be a cause of delayed cognitive development and lower nutritional status of children in rural China.

“This rural-urban migration is a key process that helps to drive economic growth,” says Sylvia. “Our findings suggest that when there are policies or other barriers that prevent families from staying together during this migration process, there are not only immediate costs due to separation but also potentially substantial longer-term costs due to children not reaching their potential.”

As of 2010, there were approximately 61 million “left-behind” children in China, 11.7 million of whom were under the age of two. After their mothers had migrated, children spent less time in stimulating activities and were more likely to have reduced dietary quality. Compared to children whose mothers hadn’t migrated, Sylvia and team found that children whose mothers migrated were associated with an 8.2 percentage point increase in the probability of cognitive delay.

Previous research has shown that a child’s environment during their first two years plays a critical role in their development and can have long-lasting effects into adulthood.  This is the first study to estimate the causal effects of parental migration on cognitive, psychomotor, and socioemotional development during the first two years of life.

“We were surprised by the size of the effects that we found: the negative effect on cognitive development of a mother migrating when the child is in the first year is close to the size of the benefits we found in another study looking at the impacts of a relatively intensive early childhood program,” says Sylvia.

The takeaway for policymakers in China? The migration that has fueled its economic growth may have come with a cost in human capital for the next generation. Investments must be made in early childhood programs in rural communities throughout China.

“Poor development in early childhood is widespread throughout rural China,” he says. “Investments are needed for all children.”

Sylvia is a health and developmental economist who has conducted multiple-large scale studies of early childhood development in China’s rural areas and migrant communities, as well as numerous studies of health, nutrition, and learning among children at older ages. Fluent in Mandarin, he has had long-standing collaborations with a number of universities in China and has published multiple articles on early childhood and human capital in China.

In a paper published last month in the Journal of the European Economic Association (JEEA), Sylvia and colleagues from Stanford University, Peking University, and University College London ran a large field experiment across 170 schools in western China to see if monetary rewards could improve the impact of anemia reduction programs.

About 25 percent of children in poor areas of China are anemic. Sylvia and his colleagues paid school principals based on how many children they brought out of anemia during the school year. A comparison group was given the same information about anemia-reduction, but not paid.

The researchers also gave schools grant funding to implement the programs that would reduce anemia. They found that the large monetary rewards to the principals and giving the schools themselves grant funding to reduce anemia both had a large effect; the kids were much more likely to not be anemic. However, giving the principals smaller rewards didn’t work – and puzzlingly, giving both monetary rewards and large school-based grants also didn’t have an effect.

The findings suggest that performance incentives can be effective, but they are not complementary to discretionary resources.