Research News

Country-to-City Links, Migration Can Improve Rural Lives

IPR economist Cynthia Kinnan investigates internal migration in China


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How does sending a migrant to the city affect rural households?

Most Western images of migrants tend to be of those leaving one country for another, such as Syrians migrating to Turkey, Mexicans to the United States, or Africans to Greece. Yet of an estimated one billion migrants worldwide, “about three-quarters of the world’s migrants are internal migrants, meaning that they migrate somewhere else within their home country,” says IPR economist Cynthia Kinnan

“There’s actually been a lot of debate in the literature about whether internal migration, or migration in general, is a good thing for household members left behind,” she continued.

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Cynthia Kinnan

To investigate, Kinnan and her colleagues capitalize on two natural experiments in China. First, in the 1960s and 1970s, China implemented its “sent-down youth” policy, dispatching nearly 18 million young people from cities to rural provinces of the government’s choosing. They generally stayed three to four years, and while many returned to the urban areas from which they came, some remained and married rural locals. Then, in the 1990s, China relaxed its “hukou,” or household registration system, making it easier for rural families to send members to cities.

The researchers sought to determine whether the sent-down youth program created “lasting linkages” between the rural and urban locations—connections that should appear years later, if the rural households chose to send migrants to these urban provinces after hukou reforms. Theirs is the first study to explore these connections, as well as the first study to examine the effects of increased access to migration on the agricultural production of rural households.

The researchers discover that, on the whole, internal migration helped rural households. Households with access to migration eat better and more consistently over time. They also invest in “riskier” and more profitable agricultural endeavors, including cash crops and breeding animals.

“Instead of all the household’s economic eggs being in one basket, now the household is deriving income from two different places,” Kinnan said. “That provides them with insurance in the sense that when things go badly at home, they could be going well in the city, and vice versa.” 

The researchers also find that the sent-down youth program did indeed create lasting linkages between rural provinces and urban ones—a result that could have important policy implications. 

“It’s less daunting for households to migrate to a place that their home has historical ties to—in our case, because of the sent-down youth policy,” Kinnan said. “Developing countries are going to continue to urbanize over the coming years, so providing households in rural areas with ways to … form connections with urban areas may help them undertake internal migration.”

Cynthia Kinnan is assistant professor of economics and an IPR fellow.