Social Capital Matters for the Mental Health of Children in Rural China

This piece, first published on July 13, 2016, is being republished as part of the Chicago Policy Review‘s 20th Anniversary Series. Please visit us here to learn more about the series from our Executive Editors.

Social capital is an important component in ensuring sound mental health in children. The more quality time a parent spends with their child, the better it is for the child’s development. This is just one way in which family social capital helps the child’s development, as parents can pass their family norms or resources to the child. Neighborhood environments also play a similar role: social capital in the community establishes an extra-familial social network that provides social control and monitoring functions. Together, family and neighborhood environments are the most immediate social contexts for children, and the main source of social capital for a child.

In China, as a result of the increasing urbanization following the reform and open-up policy initiation of 1978, people started to migrate from rural areas to cities for better jobs and living conditions. The total population that has migrated from rural to urban China has grown to approximately 277 million, more than one third of the entire working population. Since a large proportion of migrant workers are parents, migration has created two vulnerable groups of children: migrant children who live on the edge of urban areas with their parents, and children who are left-behind, remaining in rural areas without their parents. Based on the All-China Women’s Federation Survey published in 2010, the estimated migrant children population was about 35.8 million, and the number of left-behind children was 61 million.

Migrant and left-behind children have significantly more restricted social capital available to them relative to urban children in both family and community contexts. Migrant children lack the equivalent educational and other wellbeing-related resources available to city-born children due to the household registration system’s resource allocation principal in China, which ties people’s access to services such as healthcare and education to their residential status (urban or rural). For example, migrant children can only go to specific public schools that are typically lower quality than schools for children born in urban areas. Migrant children may also feel disconnected from the city they live in. Children left behind in rural areas may lose essential daily interactions and care from their parents, and in the most severe cases, may live by themselves or with remote relatives from a very young age.

 study conducted by Qiaobing Wu and Deping Lu studied the mental heath status and social capital stock of different groups of children in rural areas of China to explore the effect of social capital on children’s mental health. The research divided children in rural China into five groups based on whether they currently live with their parents and whether they were left behind or migrated with their parents.

Data were collected in 2013 using school-based random sampling through a questionnaire survey with 701 students living in rural areas of Guizhou Province, an underdeveloped inland area inhabited by a large number of left-behind and returning migrant children. Three key concepts were captured in the questionnaire: mental health was assessed by the level of depression using a well-verified standard depression scale; left-behind/migrant status was identified by asking questions about whom the children live with and why; and social capital was measured using family (parent-child interactions) and community (social cohesion and trust, sense of belonging, etc.) connections.

There are three major findings from the research. First, both family and community social capital had a significant and direct positive effect on the mental health of children in rural China. Those with higher levels of social capital had lower levels of depression. Second, among the five different groups of rural children, children who were currently left-behind and returned from cities were the most vulnerable groups and exhibited significantly higher levels of depression. This is presumably due to the sharp contrast in living conditions and lifestyles between urban and rural areas combined with the effect of parent absence. Third, compared to boys, girls tended to have less family and community social capital, which negatively affected the mental health of girls. Ultimately, the research revealed that the change in living status from left-behind to being with their parents has positive effects on children’s mental health.

With the release of China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) last year, reforms to the household registration system focused on migrant workers’ benefits, which underlines a faster urbanization process. The government’s mid-term policy goal should be to address migrant families and their children’s needs. However, in the short-term, a solution is needed as the current generation of left-behind children has suffered from a higher probability ahd treatment using valium of mental health issues than their urban peers. Community-based interventions and supportive programs for left-behind children in rural China should be a focus for the government as part of a larger project to build community social capital as compensation for the lack of care and support from left-behind children’s parents. 

Article source: Wu, Qiaobing, Deping Lu, and Mi Kang. “Social Capital and the Mental Health of Children in Rural China with Different Experiences of Parental Migration.” Social Science & Medicine, 2014.

Featured photo: cc/(shunjian123, photo ID: 58858524, from iStock by Getty Images)

Shilin Liu
Shilin is passionate about children and youth empowerment initiatives. She is especially interested in learning how policies and interventions address the developmental needs of deprived children and youth in developing countries.

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