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Economics of Rural–Urban Migration  

Pei-Ju Liao and Chong Kee Yip

In the past century, many developing countries have experienced rapid economic development, which is usually associated with a process of structural transformation and urbanization. Rural–urban migration, shifting the labor force from less productive agricultural sectors to more productive industrial sectors in cities, plays an important role in the growth process and thus has drawn economists’ attention. For instance, it is recognized that one of the important sources of China’s growth miracle is rural–urban migration. At the early stage of economic development, an economy usually relies on labor-intensive industries for growth. Rural–urban migrants thus provide the necessary labor force to urban production. Since they are more productive in industrial sectors than in agricultural sectors, aggregate output increases and economic growth accelerates. In addition, abundant migrants affect the rates of return to capital by changing the capital–labor ratio. They also change the skill composition of the urban labor force and hence the relative wage of skilled to unskilled workers. Therefore, rural–urban migration has wide impacts on growth and income distribution of the macroeconomy. What are the forces that drive rural–urban migration? It is well understood that cities attract rural migrants because of better job opportunities, better career prospects, and higher wages. Moreover, enjoying better social benefits such as better medical care in cities is another pull factor that initiates rural–urban migration. Finally, agricultural land scarcity in the countryside plays an important role on the push side for moving labor to cities. The aforementioned driving forces of rural–urban migration are work-based. However, rural–urban migration could be education-based, which is rarely discussed in the literature. In the past decade, it has been proposed that cities are the places for accumulating human capital in work. It is also well established that most of the high-quality education institutions (including universities and specialized schools for art and music) are located in urban areas. A youth may first move to the city to attend college and then stay there for work after graduation. From this point of view, work-based migration does not paint the whole picture of rural–urban migration. In this article, we propose a balanced view that both the work-based and education-based channels are important to rural–urban migration. The migration story could be misleading if any of them is ignored.