What Does ‘Poverty’ Really Mean?

When we talk about the poverty rate or families living in poverty, what definition are we using for “poverty?”

That depends on which government agency is providing the measure.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s measure is the “poverty threshold.” It is updated annually and is based on household size, number of children and age of household residents, but it does not vary by geographic location. For instance, one person who makes less than $11,139 a year is in poverty; for a family of four, it’s $22,314. The Census Bureau’s thresholds are primarily for statistical purposes.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has its own measure, called the “poverty guidelines.” Also updated every year and based on household size, the HHS guidelines vary by geographic location and are primarily used by agencies to assess eligibility for federal programs, such as Medicare, Head Start and the National School Lunch Program. For the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia, the poverty guideline for one person is $10,830, and for a family of four, it is $22,050.

Read the Census Bureau’s 2010 report Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States below and join the discussion.

Last modified: March 5, 2012 at 8:10 pm