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Does free education help combat child labor? The effect of a free compulsory education reform in rural China

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This paper evaluates the effect of a free compulsory education reform in rural China on the incidence of child labor. We exploit the cross-province variation in the rollout of the reform and apply a difference-in-differences strategy to identify the causal effects of the reform. We find that exposure to free compulsory education significantly reduces the incidence of child labor for boys, but has no significant effect on the likelihood of child labor for girls. Specifically, one additional semester of free compulsory education decreases the incidence of child labor for boys by 8.3 percentage points. Moreover, the negative effect of the reform on the likelihood of child labor is stronger for boys from households with lower socioeconomic status. Finally, the free compulsory education reform may induce parents to reallocate resources towards boys within a household and thus may enlarge the gender gap in human capital investment.

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  1. Since the implementation of Compulsory Schooling Law in 1986, the enrollment rates of primary and junior high school has increased remarkably. In 2005, the gross enrollment rate of primary and junior high school was 95%. However, although the short-term impact of the school subsidy program on school enrollment is small, Xiao et al. (2017) show that the program has larger long-term effects on individuals’ educational attainment and cognitive achievement in early adulthood.

  2. He (2016), Tang et al. (2018), and Zhao et al. (2016) are among the few which explicitly analyze child labor in China. He (2016) shows a significant negative effect of child labor on a child’s academic achievement and concludes that child labor is not a big problem in China. However, Tang et al. (2018) find that child labor is not a negligible social phenomenon in China: about 7.74% of children ages 10–15 were working in 2010. Zhao et al. (2016) demonstrate that China’s accession to the World Trade Organization significantly increased the incidence of child labor in rural China.

  3. Maplecroft’s 2014 Child Labor Index evaluates the frequency and severity of reported child labor incidents in 197 countries. China ranks 20th in child labor risks among 197 countries.

  4. Child labor is associated with an income constraint on parents (Basu and Van 1998). Edmonds (2005) shows a strong decline in child labor as a consequence of improved household per capita expenditure.

  5. In general, the minimum age of employment is 15 years old, which is the minimum age of completion of compulsory schooling (ILO, 1973).

  6. As a robustness check, we also construct the expected number of semesters that a child is supposed to be exposed to the free compulsory education during ages 6–15 and estimate the treatment effects on child labor incidence. The results, which are available from the authors upon request, do not change much.

  7. Unpaid work may be easier to combine with schooling than paid work, because paid work generally involves less flexible hours and a greater intensity of work (as suggested by Edmonds 2008; Edmonds and Schady 2012).

  8. There are two alternative measures of reform exposure: the actual number of semesters that an individual is exposed to the free compulsory education at the time of the survey and the number of semesters that an individual is supposed to be exposed to the free compulsory education. The actual reform exposure depends on the actual enrollment age, which may be endogenous, so we use the supposed reform exposure instead.

  9. Birth cohort is constructed based on school academic year. For example, children born between September 1997 and August 1998 are supposed to enroll in primary school in the same year and are defined in the same birth cohort.

  10. The relatively large coefficient on semester is mainly driven by the older boys from western China in which the incidence of child labor for 15-year old boys is up to 23.3% in 2010, and the detailed results are available upon request.

  11. The TEOS reform exempted 34 million rural students from paying tuition and miscellaneous fees in 2005 (The Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China, 2006), accounting for approximately 20% of 6–15-year-old rural children.

  12. Household net assets include assets in kind and financial assets, net of debt.


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We would like to thank the editor, Junsen Zhang, for his guidance and thank the helpful comments from three anonymous referees, Eric V. Edmonds, Klaus Zimmermann, and conference participants in the 9th International Symposium on Human Capital and Labor Markets and a seminar at IESR, Jinan University. We thank the Institute of Social Survey at Peking University for providing the China Family Panel Study used in this paper. All views and the remaining errors are the authors’ alone.


This study was supported by the Humanities and Social Sciences Foundation of the Ministry of Education of China (Grant No. 19YJC790193).

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Correspondence to Liqiu Zhao.

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Table 11 Effects of the reform on child labor: children from households with both sons and daughters
Table 12 Spillover effects of the reform

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Tang, C., Zhao, L. & Zhao, Z. Does free education help combat child labor? The effect of a free compulsory education reform in rural China. J Popul Econ 33, 601–631 (2020).

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