SSA's New Research with China Collaborative

Paula Tsurutani

By Understanding how urbanization affects vulnerable populations

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


For the past year, SSA has been working with Peking University (PKU) and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in an ambitious partnership—the Tripartite Collaboration for Advancing Social Work in China. This initiative, launched with lead funding by Anna Pao Sohmen, EX '68, and philanthropists Sue Peng and Xiotian Zhang, is designed to foster the development of professional social work education and research in China. 

Group of Chinese people

Rapid urbanization, locally and globally, makes the efforts especially significant. Chinese cities, according to the United Nations, are expected to add 292 million people by 2050 (although China’s total population is expected to decline to 1.364 billion). With such growth comes new problems, including health care disparities, child welfare concerns, and poor access to family support services. In China, where urbanization is driving extensive migration from rural communities to urban centers, there also are significant repercussions in the rural areas.

“To mitigate social problems caused by urbanization, you need to understand how urbanization affects vulnerable populations in both rural and urban areas,” says SSA Deputy Dean and Professor Robert Chaskin, who holds a UNESCO Chair on Inclusive Urbanism and co-leads the collaboration. “It includes understanding the factors that drive migration, the nature of connections maintained or lost between migrants and their rural communities, and the challenges faced by those ‘left behind’ in rural communities and those resettling in new urban areas.”

To address the impact of urbanization caused by worker migration from rural to urban communities, the collaboration is initiating a project focused on two communities—a rural “sending” community and an urban “receiving” community. In each community, the collaboration will examine the factors driving migration, the challenges faced by the vulnerable populations affected, the ways support systems respond, and how social policy or on-the-ground interventions can be effective.

Ultimately, the project will combine three interrelated activities: development and implementation of intervention strategies; research activities to inform intervention design, understand project impact, and determine how policies and practices can respond; and training opportunities that will further develop the social work profession in China.

As a first step, faculty from PKU, PolyU, and SSA conducted a study visit to Dianji Village in Fengtai County, Anhui Province—a typical “sending” community, with 70-80 percent of the young and middle aged villagers being migrant workers. PKU has a study in the community, says Chaskin, “so we have relationships and a history of trust that provides a strong foundation for future work. Our group met with government officials, elder care providers, teachers, caretakers, and other community leaders to listen to their concerns and determine priorities and needs.” 

Key issues included:

  • The need for academic, behavioral, and psychosocial support for children
  • The need to bridge communication barriers between children in the village and their urban dwelling parents
  • The need for broader family support services
  • The lack of out-of-school activities for children and youth
  • The limited capacity of organizations and local institutions to address the needs of this population

In response, the collaboration is working with local partners on an intervention based on establishing a Social Support Initiative that would focus on “left-behind” children and their families that will build social support relations and communications among children, caretakers, and migrant parents.

Most recently, Chaskin, PKU and PolyU partners, SSA Interim Dean Deborah Gorman-Smith, and SSA Professor Colleen Grogan visited Nanjing, an urban “receiving” community to assess specific needs and concerns caused by migration. “Eventually, we hope to work with local organizations and government officials to shape a policy development research project that would include building a network of actors working with migrant families and the challenges they face, and develop and test interventions that would support both the effective integration of migrant populations into the urban community and would lead to better outcomes—such as educational, health, employment, and income—for migrant children and families,” says Chaskin.