Comprehensive Report Reveals Glaring Rural-Urban Disparity in the Well-being of Children in China

The Report on the State of Children in China is a research collaboration of policy researchers between the University of Chicago, the University of Peking, and Chapin Hall. Comprehensive in its coverage of different child outcomes, the report reveals glaring disparities in education, economic conditions, and emotional health between rural and urban children in China.

What We Did

This study is based on analysis of data from the China Family Panel Studies, the first national representative household survey in China. We look at the “hukou” system of household registration, established by the Chinese government in the 1950s, which effectively reduced rural residents to a de facto second-class citizenry. We describe how the hukou status, tied to unequal access to public services such as education, employment, and healthcare, has led to the plight of rural children. Using bivariate and multivariate statistical methods, we examine all major areas of child development and risk factors such as family economic conditions, living arrangements, and neighborhood support.

What We Found

In 2010, more than 70 percent of children in China lived in rural communities, of which one in four were left behind for long periods of time by one or both parents who seek work in urban areas. Children who migrated to cities with their parents constituted 15 percent of the urban child population.

Chart showing the developmental outcomes of rural and urban children in China in 2010


Rural children suffered clear deficit in major domains of child development:

  • Higher rate of low birth weight and child obesity
  • Lower level of reported well-being
  • Poor social skills
  • Lower rate of preschool and kindergarten enrollment
  • Less likely to aspire to college

Compared to rural children with both parents at home, children who were left behind faced further adversities, including:

  • Higher rate of illness
  • Lower rate of preschool and kindergarten enrollment
  • Less caregiver involvement in child education
  • Less community and family social support

Despite the many adversities facing migrant children in urban areas, they fare better than their rural counterparts in most aspects of child development. But they still lag behind urban children in several areas:

  • More likely to report a lack of confidence in the future
  • Less likely to have college aspirations

What It Means

Based on our findings, we make the following policy recommendations to improve the conditions of rural children in China:

  • Major municipalities should expand children’s access to public schools and other public services in urban areas, regardless of migrant status or household registration.
  • Greater public investments in early care and education programs in rural China would help close the emerging urban/rural achievement gap.
  • Finally, it is necessary to establish an integrated child services and protection system with resources and manpower to serve the various needs of vulnerable children and families by governments in regions where vulnerable children are concentrated.
Recommended Citation
Chen, L.J., Yang, D.L., & Ren, Q. (2015). Report on the state of children in China. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago
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