Journal of Population Economics

, Volume 33, Issue 1, pp 155–195 | Cite as

Social networks and mental health outcomes: Chinese rural–urban migrant experience

  • Xin Meng
  • Sen XueEmail author
Original Paper


Over the past two decades, more than 160 million Chinese rural workers have migrated to cities to work. They are separated from their familiar rural networks to work in an unfamiliar, and often hostile, environment. Many of them thus face significant mental health challenges. This paper is the first to investigate the extent to which migrant social networks in host cities can mitigate these adverse mental health effects. Using unique longitudinal survey data from Rural-to-Urban Migration in China (RUMiC), we find that network size matters significantly for migrant workers. Our preferred instrumental variable estimates suggest that a one standard deviation increase in migrant city networks, on average, reduces the measure of mental health problems by 0.47 to 0.66 of a standard deviation. Similar effects are found among the less educated, those working longer hours, and those without access to social insurance. The main channel of the network effect is through boosting migrants’ confidence and reducing their anxiety.


Mental health Social networks Migration China 

JEL Classification

I12 I15 J61 



We would like to thank Tue Gorgens, Bob Gregory, Jenny Williams, the Editor Klaus Zimmermann, and three anonymous referees and seminar and conference participants at Australian National University and the 2014 Australasian Econometric Society Annual Meeting for their invaluable comments.


This study was funded by the Australian Research Council for RUMiC project (ARC grant number LP066972, LP140100514, and DP0988572) and Guangzhou Social Science “13-fives plan” Grant (2019GZYB25).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Akay A, Bargain O, Zimmermann K (2012) Relative concerns of rural-to-urban migrants in China. Econ Behav Or 81(2):421–441Google Scholar
  2. Akay A, Giulietti C, Robalino J, Zimmermann K (2013) Remittances and well-being among rural-to-urban migrants in China. Rev Econ Household 12(3):1–30Google Scholar
  3. All China Women’s Federation (2013) Report on rural left-behind children and rural-urban migrated children in China (wo guo nong cun liu shou er tong cheng xiang liu dong er tong zhuang kuang yan jiu bao gao). All China Women’s FederationGoogle Scholar
  4. Anderson TW, Rubin H (1949) Estimation of the parameters of a single equation in a complete system of stochastic equations. Ann Math Stat, 46–63Google Scholar
  5. Bao S, Bodvarsson OB, Hou JW, Zhao Y (2007) Interprovincial migration in China: the effects of investment and migrant networks. IZA Discussion Papers 2924, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA)Google Scholar
  6. Bartel A, Taubman P (1979) Health and labor market success: the role of various diseases. Rev Econ Stat 61(1):1–8Google Scholar
  7. Bartel A, Taubman P (1986) Some economic and demographic consequences of mental illness. J Labor Econ, 243–256Google Scholar
  8. Bhugra D (2004) Migration and mental health. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 109(4):243–258Google Scholar
  9. Bjorklund A (1985) Unemployment and mental health: some evidence from panel data. J Human Resour 20(4):469–483Google Scholar
  10. Brickman P, Coates D, Janoff-Bulman R (1978) Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative? J Person Soc Psychol 36(8):917–927Google Scholar
  11. Cai F, Du Y, Wang M (2001) Hukou system and labour market protection in China. Economic Research (jing ji yan jiu, in Chinese), 41–49Google Scholar
  12. Chadwick KA, Collins PA (2015) Examining the relationship between social support availability, urban center size, and self-perceived mental health of recent immigrants to Canada: a mixed-methods analysis. Soc Sci Med 128:220–230Google Scholar
  13. Chen J (2011) Internal migration and health: re-examining the healthy migrant phenomenon in China. Soc Sci Med 72(8):1294–1301Google Scholar
  14. Clark AE, Oswald AJ (1994) Unhappiness and unemployment. Econ J 104 (424):648–659Google Scholar
  15. Cohen S (2004) Social relationships and health. Am Psychol 59(8):676Google Scholar
  16. Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D (2009) Can we improve our physical health by altering our social networks? Perspect Psychol Sci 4(4):375–378Google Scholar
  17. Cohen S, Wills TA (1985) Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychol Bull 98:310–357Google Scholar
  18. Connolly M (2013) Some like it mild and not too wet: the influence of weather on subjective well-being. J Happiness Stud 14(2):457–473Google Scholar
  19. Cornaglia F, Crivellaro E, McNally S (2015) Mental health and education decisions. Labour Econ 33:1–12Google Scholar
  20. Dunbar RI (1993) Coevolution of neocortical size, group size and language in humans. Behav Brain Sci 16(04):681–694Google Scholar
  21. Di Tella R, Haisken-De New J, MacCulloch R (2010) Happiness adaptation to income and to status in an individual panel. J Econ Behav Org 76(3):834–852Google Scholar
  22. Ettner SL, Frank RG, Kessler RC (1997) The impact of psychiatric disorders on labor market outcomes. Indus Labor Relat Rev 51:64Google Scholar
  23. Ertel KA, Glymour MM, Berkman L (2009) Social networks and health: a life course perspective integrating observational and experimental evidence. J Soc Person Relat 26(1):73–92Google Scholar
  24. Frijters P, Johnston DW, Meng X (2009) The mental health cost of long working hours: the case of rural Chinese migrants. Working paperGoogle Scholar
  25. Frijters P, Johnston DW, Shields MA (2010) Mental health and labour market participation: evidence from IV panel data models. IZA Discussion Papers. No:4883Google Scholar
  26. Gardner J, Oswald AJ (2006) Do divorcing couples become happier by breaking up? J R Stat Soc Series A (Stat Soc) 169(2):319–336Google Scholar
  27. Gardner J, Oswald AJ (2007) Money and mental wellbeing: a longitudinal study of medium-sized lottery wins. J Health Econ 26(1):49–60Google Scholar
  28. Giles J, Yoo K (2007) Precautionary behavior, migrant networks, and household consumption decisions: an empirical analysis using household panel data from rural China. Rev Econ Stat 89(3):534–551Google Scholar
  29. Gong X, Kong ST, Li S, Meng X (2008) Rural-urban migrants: a driving force for growth. China’s dilemma: economic growth, the environment and climate change. In: Song L, Woo WT (eds). ANU Press, pp 110–152Google Scholar
  30. Graetz B (1991) Multidimensional properties of the general health questionnaire. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatric Epidemiol 26:132–138Google Scholar
  31. He X, Wong DFK (2013) A comparison of female migrant workers mental health in four cities in China. Int J Soc Psychiatry 59(2):114–122Google Scholar
  32. Henríquez-Sánchez P, Doreste-Alonso J, Henríquez-Sánchez MA, Bes-Rastrollo M, Gea A, Sánchez-Villegas A (2014) Geographical and climatic factors and depression risk in the sun project. Europ J Public Health 24(4):626–631Google Scholar
  33. Hill RA, Dunbar RI (2003) Social network size in humans. Human Nat 14 (1):53–72Google Scholar
  34. Hull D (1979) Migration, adaptation, and illness: a review. Soc Sci Med 13 (A):25–36Google Scholar
  35. Imbens GW, Angrist JD (1994) Identification and estimation of local average treatment effects. Econometrica 62(2):467–475Google Scholar
  36. Janisch LM (2017) Mental health assimilation of Australian immigrants. Ruhr Economic Papers No. 728Google Scholar
  37. Kawachi I, Berkman L (2001) Social ties and mental health. J Urban Health 78:458–467Google Scholar
  38. Kleibergen F, Paap R (2006) Generalized reduced rank tests using the singular value decomposition. J Econometr 133(1):97–126Google Scholar
  39. Kuroda S, Yamamoto I (2016) Workers’ mental health, long work hours, and workplace management: evidence from workers’ longitudinal data in Japan. Technical report, Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI)Google Scholar
  40. Lou Y, Beaujot R (2005) What happens to the ‘Healthy Immigrant Effect’: the mental health of immigrants to Canada. PSC Discussion Papers Series: 19(15), Article 1Google Scholar
  41. Li L, Wang HM, Ye XJ, Jiang MM, Lou QY, Hesketh T (2007) The mental health status of Chinese rural urban migrant workers. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatric Epidemiol 42:716–722Google Scholar
  42. Li X, Stanton B, Fang X, Xiong Q, Yu S, Lin D, Hong Y, Zhang L, Chen X, Wang B (2009) Mental health symptoms among rural-to-urban migrants in China: a comparison with their urban and rural counterparts. World Health Popul 11(1):24–38Google Scholar
  43. McKenzie K, Whitley R, Weich S (2002) Social capital and mental health. British J Psychiatry 181(4):280–283Google Scholar
  44. Meng X (2000) Labour market reform in China. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  45. Meng X (2012) Labor market outcomes and reforms in China. J Econ Perspect 26(4):75–101Google Scholar
  46. Miech RA, Caspi A, Moffitt TE, Wright BRE, Silva PA (1999) Low socioeconomic status and mental disorders: a longitudinal study of selection and causation during young adulthood. Am J Sociol 104(4):1096–1131Google Scholar
  47. Mou J, Cheng J, Griffiths SM, Wong SY, Hillier S, Zhang D (2011) Internal migration and depressive symptoms among migrant factory workers in Shenzhen, China. J Commun Psychol 39(2):212–230Google Scholar
  48. Mu R, van de Walle D (2011) Left behind to farm? Women’s labor re-allocation in rural China. Labour Econ 18(Supplement 1):S83–S97Google Scholar
  49. Munshi K (2003) Networks in the modern economy: Mexican migrants in the US labor market. Q J Econ 118(2):549–599Google Scholar
  50. O’Hare C, OSullivan V, Flood S, Kenny RA (2016) Seasonal and meteorological associations with depressive symptoms in older adults: a geo-epidemiological study. J Affect Disorders 191:172–179Google Scholar
  51. Olesen J, Gustavsson A, Svensson M, Wittchen H-U, Jönsson B (2012) The economic cost of brain disorders in Europe. Europ J Neurol 19(1):155–162Google Scholar
  52. Pischke S (2007) Lecture notes on measurement error. Technical reportGoogle Scholar
  53. Phillips M, Zhang J, Shi Q et al (2009) Prevalence, treatment, and associated disability of mental disorders in four provinces in China during 2001–05: an epidemiological survey. Lancet 373(9680):2041–2053Google Scholar
  54. Qiu P, Caine E, Yang Y, Chen Q, Li J, Ma X (2011) Depression and associated factors in internal migrant workers in China. J Affect Disorders 134 (13):198–207Google Scholar
  55. Smith KP, Christakis NA (2008) Social networks and health. Ann Rev Sociol 34(4):405–429Google Scholar
  56. Sparks K, Cooper C, Fried Y, Shirom A (1997) The effects of hours of work on health: a meta-analytic review. J Occup Org Psychol 70(4):391–408Google Scholar
  57. Stillman S, McKenzie D, Gibson J (2009) Migration and mental health: evidence from a natural experiment. J Health Econ 28(3):677–687Google Scholar
  58. Stock JH, Wright JH (2000) GMM with weak identification. Econometrica 68(5):1055–1096Google Scholar
  59. Stock JH, Yogo M (2005) Testing for weak instruments in linear IV regression. In: Andrews DWK, Stock JH (eds) Identification and inference for econometric models: essays in honor of Thomas Rothenberg. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 80–108Google Scholar
  60. Thoits PA (2011) Mechanisms linking social ties and support to physical and mental health. J Health Soc Behav 52(2):145–161Google Scholar
  61. Wen K (1976) Theories of migration and mental health: an empirical testing on Chinese-Americans. Soc Sci Med 10(6):297–306Google Scholar
  62. Wong D, He X, Leung G, Lau Y, Chang Y (2008) Mental health of migrant workers in China: prevalence and correlates. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatric Epidemiol 43:483–489Google Scholar
  63. World Bank (2009) From poor areas to poor people: China’s evolving poverty reduction agenda: an assessment of poverty and inequality in China. World BankGoogle Scholar
  64. Xue S (2015) Who are the movers and who are the stayers? Attrition in the migrant household survey of the rural-to-urban migration in China project: 2008-2013. PhD thesis, Australian National UniversityGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Research School of Economics, College of Business and EconomicsAustralian National UniversityCanberraAustralia
  2. 2.Institute for Economic and Social ResearchJinan UniversityGuangzhouChina

Personalised recommendations