China’s labor migration

Last week, the Washington Post ran a great article about economic growth in China, and its impact on one young couple who migrated from their rural village. It starts out telling us that:

More than 61 million children — about one-fifth of the kids in China — live in villages without their parents. Most are the offspring of peasants who have flocked to cities in one of the largest migrations in human history. For three decades, the migrants’ cheap labor has fueled China’s rise as an economic juggernaut. But the city workers are so squeezed by high costs and long hours that many send their children to live with elderly relatives in the countryside.

The article goes on to tell the story of one particular couple, Wu Hongwei and Wang Yuan. They take their daughter home to his parents’ house to live, and when she reaches age two they realize they’ve become strangers to her. The article ends with Wang and Wu making a plan to bring the baby back to the city with them. It’s a moving, personal story about the costs and benefits of labor migration.

It’s also a story about people getting wealthy enough to develop new kinds of problems. I have known a lot of very poor people who would sacrifice their relationship with their kids in a heartbeat if it meant making sure their children were safe, healthy, and well-fed. You can always get to know your child later, when she’s a living grownup thanks to her good childhood. They are in real pain, but Wang and Wu have a safe place for their daughter, which is more than many people have. It’s a sign of China’s growing prosperity.

You can see a little bit of that in a quote from Wu’s mother, who is raising the girl. She pretty clearly doesn’t see what everyone is all worked up about: “The countryside has been good for Beibei…The food here is clean. The air is not polluted like in the city.”

It’s a rotten world where your mom has to raise your baby. I totally agree. It’s just not the most rotten world. Honestly, I wish it were.

[health person side note: I also noticed that one reason they cite for taking their baby girl back to the village is the high cost of baby formula, which she started needing at nine months. You can breastfeed a baby past nine months and avoid paying for formula. If she’d just gotten the baby to one year, she could have gone right to table foods and cow’s milk. They’d never have needed the costly formula.]