Does parental absence reduce cognitive achievements? Evidence from rural China

Hongliang ZHANG, Jere R. BEHRMAN, C. Simon FAN, Xiangdong WEI, Junsen ZHANG

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

130 Citations (Scopus)


Many children worldwide are left-behind by parents migrating for work - over 61 million in rural China alone, almost half of whom are left-behind by both parents. While previous literature considers impacts of one parent absent on educational inputs (e.g., study time, enrollment, schooling attainment), this study directly investigates impacts on children's learning (test scores) and distinguishes impacts of absence of one versus both parents. Dynamic panel methods that control for both unobserved individual heterogeneity and endogeneity in parental absence are used with data collected from rural China. The estimates indicate significant negative impacts of being left-behind by both parents on children's cognitive development, reducing their contemporary achievements by 5.4 percentile points for math and 5.1 percentile points for Chinese, but much smaller insignificant impacts of being left-behind by one parent. Cross-sectional evidence indicates that only absence of both parents is associated with substantially lower family inputs in after-school tutoring.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)181-195
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Development Economics
Early online date2 Oct 2014
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2014

Bibliographical note

The authors acknowledge funding support provided by the Hong Kong Research Grants Council General Research Fund (No. 458910), Chinese University of Hong Kong South China Program, and Grand Challenges Canada Grant 0072-03.


  • China
  • Cognitive achievement
  • Left-behind children
  • Migrating parents


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