HOW RELATIONAL POVERTY IS AFFECTING CHILDREN IN RURAL CHINA
by Nicolette Beharie
10 years old, Yang spends most of her time pondering things that no fourth grader should ever have to consider.
“I’m afraid my grandmother will get sick,” admits Yang, who lives in a rural area of central China. Pressing past any fondness towards her a-po, she comes to this abrupt conclusion: “Then she can’t take care of me anymore.” At first, her reasoning seems callous. But Yang knows more than anybody how devastating this would be for her struggling family. “My parents can’t work outside anymore, and then my family will be poor.”
Yang is among the millions of left-behind children in China – minors who stay home with a grandparent or caregiver while one or both parents migrate to urban areas to find work. Although this helps rural families to alleviate their material poverty, it comes at a cost. Separated from their parents for long periods of time, left-behind children experience another form of deprivation: relational poverty.
Described as a lack of communication, interaction and affection, relational poverty increases the vulnerability of growing children. This significantly impacts the psychological well-being, academic development and social integration of left-behind children.
Since 1978, China has initiated market reforms that have led to unprecedented economic growth. In fact, China – the second largest economy in the world – has the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history, says information from the World Bank. Now considered an upper middle-income country, China’s success has helped lift millions out of extreme poverty.
But despite this rapid increase in wealth, many in China still remain poor – particularly in rural areas. Based on China’s poverty standard, the World Bank says there were 55 million poor in rural areas in 2015. With urban households earning more than 2.7 times that of rural homes, China’s wealth gap is evident.
Living in the countryside, Yang’s parents found it difficult to survive on their meager income. Most families in their village have small plots of land that only yield enough for their basic needs. If they harvest enough to sell, the money they earn is not enough to pay for the rising costs of essentials like medicine, clothing and school supplies.
CBM Field Staff Ella T.* is based in East Asia and has seen firsthand how families in rural areas struggle to make ends meet. “When they sell their crops, the buying power of that money is really low. It’s much lower than in the past,” Ella explains. “That’s the reason why they don’t have enough money – because of urbanization and the growth of the economy in the cities, everything is now much more expensive.”
In Yang’s village, there are few alternatives to farming. To better support their family, her parents migrated to another province and found work in an urban factory. With limited education and training, rural dwellers often secure labour-intensive jobs in cities, working on construction sites and production lines.
Over the years, rapid urbanization has fuelled the demand for these jobs – causing rural dwellers to flock to urban areas in record-breaking numbers. Information from the World Health Organization (WHO) says there were 274 million rural-to-urban migrants in 2014, leaving a quarter of the country’s children left behind by their parents that year. But the promise of job opportunities and higher wages doesn’t come without its challenges.
“They don’t know how dangerous the job is,” Ella says of the precarious jobs often available to migrant workers. “Many of them get hurt or injured. In such cases, they will really be in poverty because they can no longer work.”
Last year, more than 40 per cent of workers around the world were in vulnerable forms of employment, says information from the International Labour Organization (ILO). By 2019, there could be an additional 35 million people in vulnerable employment. “Although there are fewer workers living in poverty, especially in emerging countries,” the ILO warns, “the rate of decline in these numbers is slowing.”
John Chan, CBM’s Director of International Partnerships, has seen the effects of urbanization on migrant workers. “Most of them have to work at least six days a week,” he says. They work for long hours in poor conditions, so they can send money home to their families. But with the demands of working in the city, these marginalized labourers rarely get time to visit their children. In many cases, parents can only travel home once a year during the Lunar New Year.
With good intentions, migrant workers hope that moving away will be a short-term solution to their material poverty. “Their target is not to stay in the city their whole life,” Ella says. “Their target is to save enough money in the fastest way, so they can come back.” But the high cost of living, job instability and the temptations of city life quickly throw their plans off course. When they finally return home, Ella says, their children are already grown up.
Separated from their parents at an early age, some left-behind children lose the emotional connection to their parents and face psychological challenges. In China, these children are at a greater risk of insecurity, depression and anxiety, says information from WHO. Compared to children living with their parents, research has also shown that left-behind children are 60 per cent more likely to consider suicide.
Three years ago, a mass suicide of left-behind children in China shocked the nation. Local news media reported that the four siblings – between the ages of five and 13 – were left alone to fend for themselves while their father worked away from home. Their mother did not live with the children at the time, and their grandparents were too ill to care for them. Distressed and unable to cope, the teenage boy and his three younger sisters swallowed pesticide and later died in hospital.
A LEARNING CURVE
Although migrant parents are aware of the risks associated with leaving their children at home, many feel they have no choice. China’s household registration system, hukou, makes it challenging for migrant workers to settle in a city and care for their children there. Without urban documentation, rural children have limited access to quality education and health care when they are away from home. Migrant workers also struggle to find safe and affordable housing while living in the city. As a result, many parents decide to leave their children at home.
“The parents really care about the schooling of their children,” says Ella. “They hope that their children can get a higher academic level, so they can get a better job and not have to live like them.”
Yang and her brother attend school in their village, but they lack the care and guidance they need to thrive. With limited strength and energy, their grandmother can barely manage the household and prepare their daily meals. And she doesn’t have the ability to help them with their homework. “Many grandparents are illiterate,” John explains. “They cannot help with schoolwork and they don’t understand how to raise the children of this generation.”
For some left-behind children, the lack of support and interaction at home hinders their development and performance at school. This can also lead to increased drop-out rates in rural areas. Without a proper education, left-behind children have little hope of breaking the cycle of poverty in their lives.
Four years ago, CBM launched a project** to support left-behind children in central China. Partnering with local Christians, the project offers after-school tutoring, emotional support, and a safe place to play and learn. Through this project, Yang was able to access computers, books and a variety of educational supplies. Working alongside a tutor, she was able to improve her learning abilities and integrate well with other children.
Many of the children who benefit from CBM’s project find it difficult to socialize with others at first. Some are shy and reserved, while others have outbursts of anger and misbehave. Information from WHO suggests that parent-child separation has a direct and immediate impact on a child’s physical, cognitive, mental and emotional well-being.
New children participating in CBM’s project usually require a lot of one-on-one time with a tutor to build trust. “After a few months, the children start to change,” Ella says. “They grow more attached to people and are willing to open up and share what’s happening with them.”
When left-behind children connect with the tutors and interact with other children, “it provides a sense of family,” Ella says of CBM’s project. “There are people caring for them, so it’s like home for them.”
It’s hard to believe that Yang was once a shy girl who struggled to connect with others. Today, she is more confident and enjoys learning. She even hopes to be an actress one day. But whatever path she chooses to follow, Yang knows one thing for sure: “I will also help others when I grow up.”