Before 1949 the Chinese economy was characterized by widespread poverty, extreme income inequalities, and endemic insecurity of livelihood. By means of centralized economic planning, the People's Republic was able to redistribute national income so as to provide the entire population with at least the minimal necessities of life (except during the "three bad years" of 1959, 1960, and 1961) and to consistently allocate a relatively high proportion of national income to productive investment. Equally important to the quality of life were the results of mass public-health and sanitation campaigns, which rid the country of most of the conditions that had bred epidemics and lingering disease in the past. The most concrete evidence of improved living standards was that average national life expectancy more than doubled, rising from around thirty-two years in 1949 to sixty-nine years in 1985.
In 1987 the standard of living in China was much lower than in the industrialized countries, but nearly all Chinese people had adequate food, clothing, and housing. In addition, there was a positive trend toward rapid improvements in living conditions in the 1980s as a result of the economic reforms, though improvements in the standard of living beyond the basic level came slowly. Until the end of the 1970s, the fruits of economic growth were largely negated by population increases, which prevented significant advances in the per capita availability of food, clothing, and housing beyond levels achieved in the 1950s. The second major change in the standard of living came about as a result of the rapid expansion of productivity and commerce generated by the reform measures of the 1980s. After thirty years of austerity and marginal sufficiency, Chinese consumers suddenly were able to buy more than enough to eat from a growing variety of food items. Stylish clothing, modern furniture, and a wide array of electrical appliances also became part of the normal expectations of ordinary Chinese families.
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