Winding Road Toward the Chinese Dream: The U-shaped Relationship Between Income and Life Satisfaction Among Chinese Migrant Workers
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This study examines the relationship between income and subjective well-being among rural-to-urban migrant workers in China. Our analysis of a recent survey uncovered a U-shaped relationship between income and overall life satisfaction for migrant workers in Shanghai. Furthermore, the positive correlation is curvilinear, showing that increasing income yields diminishing returns. Drawing upon ethnographic literature concerning migrant workers, we suggest several possible explanations. For the poorest migrant workers, small increases in income are correlated with longer working hours and increased social comparison with their urban neighbors. After migrant workers’ income reaches a certain level, however, they are able to save money, giving them hope for future social mobility. Furthermore, migrant workers with disposable income can purchase status symbols, helping them to partially overcome their stigmatized status. The positive effect of income on life satisfaction eventually reaches a plateau, however, as even the wealthiest migrant workers find that they cannot surpass the limitations presented by their outsider identity and lack of an urban residence permit. Other findings include a negative relationship between income and income satisfaction and a positive relationship between education and income satisfaction. We conclude that the unique context surrounding Chinese migrant workers alters the typical effects of certain factors upon well-being and satisfaction.
KeywordsChinese migrant workers Income Subjective well-being Life satisfaction Social status
The authors are grateful to the editor and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. The first author would also like to acknowledge the tremendous help provided by his colleagues at “The Society of Wei,” a discussion group composed of humanities, arts and social science scholars at Fudan University. The first author acknowledges financial support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (70832001) and the National Social Science Foundation of China (13CSH071).
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