Document Type

Working Paper

Date of this Version



Informal family separation due to parental labor migration is an increasingly common experience in the lives of children in many countries. This paper proposes a framework and method for analyzing “effect pathways” by which parental labor migration might affect children’s outcomes. The framework incorporates home-environment and child-development mechanisms and is adapted from migration, sociology of education and child development literatures. We test these pathways using data on father absence and long-term educational outcomes for girls and boys in China. We apply structural equation models with inverse probability of treatment weighting to data from a 15-year longitudinal survey of 2,000 children. Significantly, fathers’ migration has distinct implications for different effect pathways. It is associated most significantly with reduced human capital at home, which has the largest detrimental effect on children’s educational attainment, among those studied. At the same time, father absence is associated with better family economic capital and mothers showing more parental warmth, which partially buffer the negative implications of father absence. Overall, father absence corresponds to a reduction of 0.364 years on average in children’s educational attainment, but the reduction is larger for boys than for girls. For boys and girls, the reduced availability of literate adults in the household linked to father absence is an important effect pathway. For girls, this detrimental effect is partially offset by a positive income effect, but for boys, no such positive effect is observed.


family separation, educational attainment, China, left-behind children, paternal labor migration, father absence



Date Posted: 19 April 2021