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Migration and experienced utility of left-behind parents: evidence from rural China

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This paper examines the impact of children’s migration on the well-being of left-behind parents using panel data on experienced utility measured by the Day Reconstruction Method. Exploiting exogenous variation in exposure to employment shocks at migration destinations for identification, we find that left-behind parents experience lower utility when their adult children migrate. This is partly due to increased working time and less time spent in social activities, and partly due to reduced utility within activity type. The latter effect is consistent with the finding of less physical care and psychological support from children who have migrated. These negative effects dominate the possible benefits of greater income associated with children’s migration.

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  1. Apart from studies on the migration impact on left-behind parents, there is also a growing literature examining the impact on left-behind children with regard to their nutrition intake, school attainment, and cognitive achievement. See Zhang et al. (2014) and Mu and de Brauw (2015) for reviews of that literature.

  2. The parameter ξ includes norms and knowledge that may shift parental preference. Potentially, the migration of adult children can affect parental utility through these preference shifters. For example, Hildebrandt and McKenzie (2005) find that the emigration of household members from Mexico to the United States increases the contraceptive knowledge of those left behind. Nikolova et al. (2017) show that civic engagement of the left behind becomes significantly higher as a result of the cultural transmission of norms by migrated friends and relatives. We abstract these channels in our model by recognizing that our empirical calibration of the saddening effect will be a lower bound in absolute value by this ignorance. See details below.

  3. Given that rural-to-urban migration in China is usually temporary and periodic (see Section 3 for more discussion), we abstract dynamic considerations in the decision. In addition, we abstract the altruism of parents from the model, although taking children’s utility into parental utility does not alter predictions of the model. We also assume remittances contribute directly to household income and abstract its role of relaxing liquidity constraints or insuring against shocks to left-behind household. See footnote 18 below for more discussion regarding the last assumption.

  4. We assume no hired labor in agricultural production, just reflecting the stylized fact that land is usually equally distributed among households in villages based on the number of laborers in a household, and wage employment is rare in agriculture (Cai 2020). Meanwhile, for simplicity, we ignore other inputs (such as capital and land) in the production function. These assumptions are actually consistent with the reality of the sample examined in the empirical part of this study. According to our calculation based on data from the Statistic Report on China’s Rural Economy (2005-2017), the average transfer rate of contracted land for Shandong, Anhui, Sichuan, and the whole nation over the period 2005-2008 was 2.5%, 5.1%, 10.5%, and 5.8%, respectively. Meanwhile, we find no significant impacts of children’s migration on households’ expenses on agriculture (e.g., hiring short-term wage labor and farming machines) or areas of transferred land by using data from our survey.

  5. Since the wages of migrants in destination labor markets are unlikely being affected by the decisions of left-behind parents, we assume wc is exogenous in the model. For simplicity, we also assume the share of remittances in total migration income (θ) to be exogenous to parents’ labor-leisure decision. Admittedly, this may reflect the altruistic motivation of children or implicit contracts between parents and children (Akay et al. 2014).

  6. In the empirical part, we define an adult child to be a migrant if she or he worked outside the home county, which does not include commuting between home and the workplace at nearby towns or counties. The average distance to the most popular destination(s) is 694 kilometers in the sample, whereas the minimum is 95 kilometers. Thus, it is very unlikely that the migrant children accompanied their parents when they migrated.

  7. People should be at present at the time of the survey and answer the questions in the DRM survey by themselves. To reduce the burden for the respondents, they could randomly choose one of the three versions of the DRM questionnaires, namely morning, afternoon, and evening. The morning questionnaire covers episodes experienced by the respondents from waking up in the morning until having lunch. The afternoon questionnaire asks questions about activities between lunch and dinner. The evening questionnaire surveys episodes from having dinner until going to bed in the evening. A balance test on examining the relationship between the likelihood of being selected into one of the three versions of the questionnaire and respondents’ characteristics justifies the randomness of the sampling (Cai et al. 2021a).

  8. Supplementary materials including questionnaires and training manuals (with additional background information and technical details) are available upon request (accessed 22 June 2021).

  9. In our sample, 90% of the people who had adult children were aged above 40, and 99% of them were above the age of 35. The results are robust if we use a different lower bound for the age criteria, such as 35 or 45 (results available upon request).

  10. In the survey, a household member is defined as one who lives in the household and shares daily expenses or one who does not live in the household but has economic connections with the household, whereas the latter type includes migrants who bring money home each year, but does not include children who established separate households.

  11. It is likely that some migrant children did not bring money home in 2009 because of the financial crisis. According to the definition of household member, we would expect they were no longer counted as household members in 2009. This may explain why the percentage of adult children that disappeared in 2009 is higher than that in 2006. Similarly, it is possible that some migrants did not bring money home in 2006 and returned home in 2009. For both cases, it is reasonable to assume they migrated during the year they were not counted as household members. We examine the robustness of the results for not making this assumption below.

  12. The migrant networks are likely formed among people of similar age in a village. The results are robust if we set the upper bound of the age group to 30 or 40 years old. The results are available upon request.

  13. We use the stata command bartik_weight provided by Goldsmith-Pinkham et al. (2020) to compute the Rotemberg weights of the IV estimation on change in the U-index. There are no migrants in our sample who migrated to Qinghai, Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, or Guangxi at baseline. Thus, these provinces are not included in Table S2 in the online supplementary appendices. The conclusions are robust if we replace the outcome variable by other measures of experienced utility.

  14. For instance, one concern about the endogenous exposure structure is that where to or how far the children travelled in 2006 (not only just the likelihood of migration) may affect the parents’ experienced utility in 2006, and thus the change in experienced utility between the two waves.

  15. In the questionnaire, the respondents were asked “If you are sick, which person can best help you?” The answers to the question include household members, relatives, friends, other people, and no one can help. Similar questions were asked regarding other situations, including the need for psychological support, financial support, or the need for support in finding a job.

  16. In the questionnaire, the respondents were asked about their expectation of income three years later. According to rational expectation hypotheses, this expectation of future income measured in 2009 can be considered a measure of permanent household income in that year. The difference between realized income and permanent income thus can be used to measure household transitory income shock. See Cai and Park (2016) for details of the measurement.

  17. The number of observations are different between Panel A and B of Table 6. This is due to some missing values in the instrumental variable of household transitory income shock. When we restrict the number of observations for regressions in Panel A to be the same as that in Panel B, the estimates on the impact of migration are unchanged, and the estimates on the impact of income are similar as well. The results are available upon request.

  18. One alternative explanation for left-behind parents working more is that remittances from migrant children help reduce liquidity constraints on investments that are complementary to labor. Actually, in the data, only about 6% of the parents with migrant children reported that they used remittances to fund investment, which suggests this alternative explanation is not an important pathway. The other explanation is that migration provides insurance against taking on risky investment, increasing the incentive of the left-behind parents to work more on farming. Although we cannot completely rule out this possibility, the findings regarding the impacts on income suggest a negative impact on self-employment earnings (shown in Table 5), indicating insurance may not be a dominant channel.

  19. By imposing the restriction that the respondents engaged in the same activity in the survey of both years, the observations for some activities, such as work and social activity, reduced substantially. We just lose power in the first-stage regressions of these activities. After pooling the observations across various activities, the Kleibergen-Paap F-statistic of the first stage increases to 19 for the IV regressions in Panel A of Table 8 (not shown in the table).


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We thank the Editor Klaus F. Zimmermann and three anonymous referees for their comments and suggestions, as well as participants at the 22nd Society of Labor Economists conference, the 3rd Biennial Conference of China Development Studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the 2017 Conference on Health and Development at Academia Sinica, the Labor Economics Frontier Forum at Jinan University, the IESR-GLO Labor workshop, the 9th Annual APRU Research Conference on Population Aging, and seminars at Peking University and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology for helpful comments. Shu Cai acknowledges funding by the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (17JNQN017) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (71703058). All remaining errors are our own. A previous version of the paper circulated under the title “Migration and Subjective Well-Being of Left-behind Parents in Rural China: Evidence from Time Use Data.”


Shu Cai acknowledges funding by the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (17JNQN017) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (71703058).

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The original version of this article was revised. Table 1 incorrect and is now corrected.

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Cai, S., Park, A. & Yip, W. Migration and experienced utility of left-behind parents: evidence from rural China. J Popul Econ 35, 1225–1259 (2022).

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