Does free education help combat child labor? The effect of a free compulsory education reform in rural China

  • Can Tang
  • Liqiu ZhaoEmail author
  • Zhong Zhao
Original Paper


This paper evaluates the effect of a free compulsory education reform in rural China on the incidence of child labor. We exploit the cross-province variation in the rollout of the reform and apply a difference-in-differences strategy to identify the causal effects of the reform. We find that exposure to free compulsory education significantly reduces the incidence of child labor for boys, but has no significant effect on the likelihood of child labor for girls. Specifically, one additional semester of free compulsory education decreases the incidence of child labor for boys by 8.3 percentage points. Moreover, the negative effect of the reform on the likelihood of child labor is stronger for boys from households with lower socioeconomic status. Finally, the free compulsory education reform may induce parents to reallocate resources towards boys within a household and thus may enlarge the gender gap in human capital investment.


Free compulsory education reform Child labor Son preference Rural China 

JEL codes

I28 I38 O20 



We would like to thank the editor, Junsen Zhang, for his guidance and thank the helpful comments from three anonymous referees, Eric V. Edmonds, Klaus Zimmermann, and conference participants in the 9th International Symposium on Human Capital and Labor Markets and a seminar at IESR, Jinan University. We thank the Institute of Social Survey at Peking University for providing the China Family Panel Study used in this paper. All views and the remaining errors are the authors’ alone.


This study was supported by the Humanities and Social Sciences Foundation of the Ministry of Education of China (Grant No. 19YJC790193).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of BusinessShanghai University of International Business and EconomicsShanghaiChina
  2. 2.School of Labor and Human ResourcesRenmin University of ChinaBeijingChina
  3. 3.Institute of Labor Economics (IZA)BonnGermany

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