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Institutional supply shortages key to left-behind children problem

(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Left-behind children have class in the countryside. The dual household registration system and high requirements for migrants to become registered urban residents in big cities, together known as the institutional supply shortage, are the root cause for the large population of left-behind children in China. Photo: FILE
Since reform and opening up, a great deal of rural surplus labor has flowed into cities, supplying China’s industrialization and modernization drives with plentiful human resources. However, the household registration, or hukou, system featuring the urban-rural divide together with high thresholds to settle down in big cities has resulted in a low migration rate of rural families. Many school-age children of the migrant population, particularly the offspring of lower-skilled workers, are not entitled to attend school in the cities where their parents work.  
Although the parents have gained higher material returns by going out to work in cities, their children have been growing up in unfavorable conditions. In the short term, the absence of parental company might affect the children’s physical and mental health alongside academic achievement, lowering their quality of growth. In the long term, the situation will impact the human capital accumulation of left-behind individuals and reduce their income prospects in the future. Without timely intervention, the problem of left-behind children is likely to lead to intergenerational poverty, which is detrimental to the long-term development of the Chinese economy and society. 
Institutional supply shortages
China has a big population of left-behind children. According to data on the migrant population collected by the National Health and Family Planning Commission from 2011 to 2015, the number of left-behind children was estimated to be 53.43 million, 50.95 million, 49.96 million, 51.62 million and 54.58 million over the five years. Left-behind children whose parents both left home to work in cities accounted for roughly 70% of the total. Furthermore, school-age left-behind children obviously outnumbered preschoolers, and the junior and senior high school groups took the largest shares. 
A look at the data on the national migrant population and the index of requirements to obtain permanent residency in representative cities has led to the following findings. First, the higher the requirements, the more likely children of migrant families will be left behind. The residential costs as a result of high thresholds to settle down in those cities and the availability of basic education resources are two important factors. 
Second, migrant couples are inclined to work in big cities together, but the access to basic public services for the floating population is far from being equal. The inability to accommodate the children of migrants in schools has left rural families no choice but to leave their children behind in their place of household registration. 
In addition, the skill preferences in requirements for an urban residence status have increased the probability that children of the lower-skilled migrant population, or those with no higher degree than college, will be left behind. In cities imposing high requirements for migrants to settle down, there are more migrant couples instead, which indicates that the policies of big cities to limit population growth by raising the bar for settlement have failed to realize their goals. However, because urban public goods, especially educational resources, are given to families with local household registration, the high threshold of cities has indeed made it more probable for rural children to be left behind. 
Therefore, the dual household registration system and high requirements for migrants to become registered urban residents in big cities, together known as the institutional supply shortage, are the root cause for the large population of left-behind children in China. 
Hukou system reform
Due to the barriers erected by the traditional household registration system and the interests pattern formed out of the division of urban and rural areas, migrant workers face high thresholds to become part of the urban population. However, the efforts to revamp the system have met with joint resistance from people with vested interests. Due to financial burden, urban governments are unwilling to enroll children of migrant workers in school, while the authorities of the rural areas of origin are not motivated to transfer their compulsory education funds to the cities. 
For a long time, big cities have tried to block out the migrant population by setting high bars for obtaining permanent residency, but high incomes in big cities have been continuing to lure migrants. Meanwhile, the unavailability of basic education due to the high requirements to settle down has rejected the children of migrant workers, giving rise to new urban diseases. Not only has the influx of workers to cities not stopped, but more and more children have been left behind in rural areas. 
China’s urbanization is oriented towards the citizenization of farmers, rather than driving migrant workers back to the countryside after they contribute their youth to cities. Thus, the solution to the left-behind children problem is to fundamentally reform the dividing household registration system, removing the bars for left-behind children to settle down in cities together with their parents.
An egalitarian basic public service system should be established to permit left-behind children to receive education equally in cities where their parents work, instead of calling on the parents to return to rural areas to accompany their children. Only measures as such can put an end to parent-child separation and radically change the situation of the lower human capital of left-behind children, thus providing a steady stream of high-quality human capital for sustained social development. 
Allowing children of the migrant population to study in cities is imperative to ending the problem of left-behind children. For big cities, it is better to augment educational supply and provide migrant children with basic public services than restricting them to enter the urban household registration system. Moreover, the central authority should financially incentivize municipal governments to provide migrants with basic public services. In addition, the role of the market is significant. Efforts should be made to play the role of market forces in providing migrant children educational services, so that eligible schools for children of migrant workers can meet certain educational demands. 
Educational cost sharing mechanism 
If big cities, as destinations of labor influx, have no adequate construction land quotas to accommodate the massive migrant population, they will be strained by infrastructure construction, land and funds, not to mention investments in basic education. This is also the main reason why big cities have to provide basic public goods only for those with local household registration. 
The inflow of large numbers of migrant workers and their family members will aggravate pressure on cities to offer public services. Tax revenues contributed by the migrant population are insufficient to fully cover the expenses of municipal governments in this aspect. However, cities should not simply require migrant workers’ contribution to urban construction, and ignore their access to the public services they deserve. The practice of only providing public services for people with local household registration lacks reasonable grounds. 
Apart from adhering to the marketization, urbanization and industrialization of central and western China and absorbing labor from nearby, it is necessary to accelerate reforms to social governance and administration systems, straighten out the boundary between the government and the market, and clarify the responsibilities of society and citizens, thereby fundamentally resolving the left-behind children problem. 
Laborers are tempted by economic benefits to work in developed cities. Through scale effects, the population aggregation boosts the productivity of cities. This is a natural law of city development around the world. As such, departments of public administration should forecast the trends of the migrant population so as to provide timely and fitting public services and to take up the related social responsibilities for children of the age for compulsory education. It is more important to sort out the public service system and build a rational educational cost-sharing mechanism. As far as school-age children are concerned, compulsory education and parental company are universal human capital investments and national public goods. The government should shoulder its due responsibilities for providing public services. 
The central government can play a bigger role in coordinating regional resource allocation to eradicate material motivations for governments of big cities to impose high requirements on migrant workers for obtaining a urban hukou. For example, it can subsidize big cities based on the number of migrant children they have accepted in schools. When it comes to the distribution of educational resources, a distinction can be made between universal and special human capital investments to fully manage the transfer of educational funds on the national level and establish a reasonable educational cost-sharing mechanism. It is urgent to build a sound mechanism in which the funds for the compulsory education of migrant children are shared by multiple levels of governments. 
For a population migrating within a province, a provincial financial transfer payment system is essential to encourage municipal governments to fund the compulsory education of migrant children within the province. As regard to trans-provincial migrants, a central financial transfer payment system is needed to incentivize municipal governments to finance children of the trans-provincial migrant population in compulsory education. Additionally, the role of the market should be played to enrich supply channels of compulsory education resources, motivating big cities to run qualified schools for the children of migrant workers and provide the children with opportunities to live and grow up with their parents in cities. 
Chen Xiaozhou is from the School of Business Administration at Guangdong University of Finance; Wei Dongxia and Chen Xinmin are from the School of Economics and Management at South China Normal University. 
edited by CHEN MIRONG