I grew up in Shanghai, China in the 1980′s. It was not so bad being poor when everyone around you was poor as well. It was normal that a family of 6 adults and 2 kids would be living in a 500sq government apartment. Everyone did so. My dad tells me that everyone was allocated around 30-60 square feet per person back then.
In fact we were the lucky ones. We had indoor plumbing. Many in the city were still using chamber pots. Though we had a toilet, we did not have a shower or bathtub so once a week we would go to the government bathhouse to take a weekly shower. At times I still dream of being in a room so thick with steam that I cannot find my mom.
By the 1980′s, ration tickets for food were mostly discontinued except for soy products. I remember that even though we had the money to buy tofu there was none to be had. Incidentally no ration tickets were needed for beef but we could not afford it.
But living in the city, I had a much larger access to food and necessities than my cousin who lived in the poorest province in China, Guizhou. During Chinese New Year when his family would come to visit, they would buy tons of stuff like toothpaste, clothing, shoes, pickled radishes, fermented vegetables, candy, and other sundries that would last them until they came back to the city until the next year.
I know that I am extremely fortunate to have emigrated to the US. It took 7 years of waiting in the long immigration line but it was worth it. Life in China would likely not have turned out well for me. I probably would not have been able to attend a good college because the competition is so stiff. I also have no connections which would make finding a job extremely difficult. As bad as the current US economy is, there is still so much more opportunity here than elsewhere.