Topic 19

Remittances and Family Cohesion

In other sections of this anthology we have summarized research at the macro level—the effects of remittances on national growth, balance of payments, and social change—and at the micro level—the effects of remittances on individual human capital (education and health) and the empowerment of women.  Here we present research at the “meso,” or family level, which raises interesting questions: Do remittances bind family members together in mutual hope and pooling of resources to achieve common goals, or do they split families apart in ego-trips and inequality of resource distribution among individuals? How much of remittances go not for consumption and investment per se, but for the mitigation of the negative externalities of separation? Do families adjust to and embrace the transnational lifestyle, or is permanent maladjustment more the norm? Does family unity – based on emotional attachment, intimacy, and priority of group over individual needs – survive spatial dispersion?

Because such concepts and questions are not easy to measure, research on family disintegration as a consequence of migration tends to rely on attitudinal instruments and qualitative designs involving relatively small number of in-depth interviews and participant observation. What these studies lack in statistical rigor they often make up for in their insights and in the generation of new research questions.

These studies focus either on the effects of separation on children whose parents migrate or on the effects of separation on parents whose children migrate. Regarding the effects on children, Schmalzbauer (2008) shows convincing evidence of a seeming unity of purpose between Honduran teens who are living middle-class lifestyles in Honduras and their parents whose willing sacrifices to work in the United States make this life style possible. The teens are motivated, serious students who are confident they can move into professional jobs without having to migrate and sustain a US-inspired middle class life.  In reality it will be difficult for transnational youths to attain their expectations without a permanent flow of remittances and thus the ongoing separation of family.   The inequality of sacrifices between parents’ and children’s expectations threatens to generate generational resentment and conflict and damage family unity.  Dreby (2007) focuses not on the inequality of sacrifice, but on the inequality of power between parents and children. Echoing research by Salazar-Parreñas on Philippine children, she finds deep-seated alienation of young children from their parents that cannot be easily reversed. The Mexican children that she interviewed felt abandoned and powerless to change their situation. This alienation transformed into behavioral problems among adolescents, including drinking and smoking, fighting, and abandoning their studies. Parents used the power of remittances and communication to attempt to remedy this situation, purchasing books, clothing, computers; calling home; and purchasing tickets home to mediate these problems—largely to no avail. Children occasionally abandoned Mexico to join parents in the U.S.—effectively canceling whatever career prospects remittances might have provided.

Evidence suggests that the impacts of migration and remittances on parents who are left behind by migrating children depend on the distance of migration and the culture and social context.  . Thailand, for example, has a rapidly-aging rural population many of whose children have migrated to urban areas. Despite the difficulties the children have in providing parental services and care, a duty emphasized by Theravada Buddhism, Knodel et al. (2010) find that older Thai have adjusted quite well to this situation. The children call regularly, visit frequently, send remittances that enable their parents to enjoy advanced lifestyles. It is hard to imagine a more different situation than that in Albania (Vullnetari and King 2008), where severe economic disruptions created a massive exodus of youth after the collapse of a political system after 1990. Migration has been sudden, long distance, and largely irregular and host-country backlash has hindered the labor force integration of Albanians abroad and reduced the remittances they have been able to send home to their parents. “Care drain” has resulted, leaving parents lonely, unfulfilled, and destitute. The related notion of “care resource extraction” is used in other research to refer to the appropriation of women from developing countries to care for the children and the elderly in developed countries, a process that threatens the mental health of the women’s own children and parents left behind.

A final article (La 2004) exposes a trend of remittances that is by no means unique – the forced payments that criminal or political organizations require of migrants or their families back home.  Based on interviews and observation of Sri Lankan Tamil enclaves in Canada, the author details how the Tamil tigers in Sri Lanka extort money to support their insurgency from the Sri Lankan migrants in the diaspora and from their relatives in Sri Lanka. In a somewhat different context, Mexican criminal organizations have begun to contact expatriates in the United States, threatening to kill family members unless ransom money is sent. This is a sobering development whose impact on families and remittances is yet to be assessed.

Topic 19 – Articles

Dreby, Joanna.  2007.  Children and Power in Mexican Transnational Families. Journal ofMarriage and Family 69: 1050–1064. (Publisher Link)

Do remittances to children compensate for the loneliness and loss of power that children face when a parent goes abroad to work? The author addresses this question through structured interviews with 44 Mexican migrant parents in New Jersey and 60 children of migrant parents, along with their caregivers, in the Mixteca region of rural central Mexico, in 2004. She finds that despite having money for possessions, schooling, and special wants and needs, children manifest deeply-entrenched feelings of abandonment that are not reversible but which lessen and evolve with age. Pre-adolescents react more subtly to the absent parent, feigning indifference to phone calls and deferring to caretakers rather than parents on questions of permission, whereas adolescents react by overtly rebellious behaviors such as aggression and disobedience. An interesting point is that remittances may have to serve remedial purposes, such as trips home by the parent to solve their child’s problems and gifts to appease guilt, and they may be wasted if the child drops out of school to join the parent working in the United States.

Knodel, John, Jiraporn Kespichayawattana, Chanpen Saengtienchai, and Suvinee Wiwatwanich.  2010. How Left Behind Are Rural Parents of Migrant Children? Evidence from Thailand. Ageing & Society 30: 811–841. (Publisher Link)

Thailand faces demographic trends that pose future challenges for the support of its older residents, including rapid population aging, smaller family sizes, and increased separation of parents and children due to rural-urban migration. This article employs data from 1011 interviews with parents 50-79 years of age left behind by migrating children—part of the Migration Impact Survey (MIS) conducted in Thailand in 2006. The authors find that remittances increase with migration distance, but services that require personal contact (providing food at least weekly, regular assistance with work or business, and help with household chores) decrease with distance. A surprising 80% of the sample agreed that “Children who live far away do not need to visit frequently if they often call their parents on the phone.” Not only did parents receive help, but they gave it as well. Almost 40% of parents believed that net care received was in the parent’s favor (compared to just under 30% who felt it was in the child’s favor). The conclusion is that parents and children exercise human agency, adapt to socio-economic changes, and meet needs for family unity via advances in communications and transport technology. Rather than modernization leading to the demise of the family, a modified extended family is able to fulfill the responsibilities to each other that previously required geographical proximity, including filial obligations to older parents.

La, John.  2004.  Forced Remittances in Canada’s Tamil Enclaves. Peace Review 16(3): 379–385.  (Publisher Link)

This descriptive narrative of forced remittances is based on secondary research on Tamil enclaves in Canada. They compose the largest Sri Lankan diaspora from the civil war that has pitted the Tamils against the Singhalese since 1983. The extorters— the Tamil Tigers, insurgents fighting for autonomy in northeastern Sri Lanka—use the funds to continue their civil war against the government, and they are notorious for using tactics such as political assassination, suicide bombing, and the recruitment of child soldiers. Their funding initiatives in Canada and in Sri Lanka create family fear and chaos. In this case, the practice of forced remittances creates victims on both sides of the migration system because it draws resources from the host state to fuel a destructive war in the sending state. This extortion is abetted by the cohesiveness of the diaspora community in Canada, its middle-class economic status, and the geography of migration in which the insurgents retaliate in Sri Lanka against family-members of non-complying diaspora members in Canada. 

Schmalzbauer, Leah.  2008. Family Divided: The Class Formation of Honduran Transnational Families. Global Networks 8(): 329–346. (Publisher Link)

This article is drawn from in-depth interviews with 34 Honduran immigrants coupled with participant observation in Chelsea, a Central American enclave of Boston, in addition to 48 children and other family members of these U.S. respondents interviewed in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, between 2001 and 2005. The author finds that economic remittances bolster the expectations and generate middle-class, US-inspired lifestyles among children in Honduras, who as students in professional fields such as computing and industrial design express confidence in their future employment prospects in Honduras. Parents support these goals, working in low-paid jobs and legal limbo and hiding (‘relativizing’) their struggles when communicating with their children. This situation has serious consequences. Flows of economic and social remittances have fostered a lack of understanding among transnational youths of their parents’ lives in the US, a hidden resentment of this by the parents, and a growing inequality within families. Furthermore, her data suggest that it will be difficult for transnational youths to meet their newfound expectations and maintain their lifestyles without a permanent flow of remittances and thus the ongoing separation of family.

Vullnetari, Julie, and Russell King.  2008.  ‘Does Your Granny Eat Grass?’ On Mass Migration, Care Drain and the Fate of Older People in Rural Albania. Global Networks 8(2): 139–171. (Publisher Link)

This article deals with the issue of care drain after the collapse of the Albanian communist system and the ensuing mass emigration of up to ½ of the younger generation since 1990. Older people have been the main social casualties and some have had to forage for survival on a near-starvation diet, making broth from grass and weeds. The study is based on intensive author interviews in 2004-2006 with 38 older residents in a village cluster in southern Albania, and with 23 Albanian migrants from the same villages who had relocated to the Greek City of Thessaloniki. Remittances from emigrant children ensured adequate material well-being for some villagers, but in all cases a loss of locally-based trans-generational care and of intimate family relations was found, embedded in poignant narratives in which older people compared themselves to “orphans,” logs, or bare trees left behind to die. Not only were they deprived of care, but as the authors point out, of care-giving for their children and grandchildren, without which their lives had little meaning. This study echoes an expanding literature documenting family disintegration in new remittance-receiving countries, and suggests the limits of transnationalism in providing emotional and physical sustenance for parents left behind.