What is the Poverty Level in the United States? (with pictures)

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
In Alaska, the poverty line is higher than in the contiguous United States to reflect the higher cost of living.
In Alaska, the poverty line is higher than in the contiguous United States to reflect the higher cost of living.

Several different measures of poverty in the United States are collectively referred to as the “poverty level,” to the irritation of many departments in the American government. All of these measures are based on the amount of money which is theoretically required to live a basic, healthy, happy life. Poverty levels are a subject of intense scrutiny and debate; for example, estimates of the percentage of Americans living in poverty range from 12-18%, depending on which measure of poverty is being used.

The U.S. has one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world.
The U.S. has one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world.

For most purposes, the “poverty level” refers to two different measurements. The first is the poverty threshold, which is determined by the United States Census Bureau. The Census Bureau adjusts this threshold annually to account for inflation, and this number is used for the purpose of generating statistics on poverty. According to the United States Census Bureau, the poverty threshold is $20,614 US for a family of four as of 2007. This number is adjusted slightly depending on the ages of the members of the household, but it is a basic starting point.

In the United States, Hispanic and African American populations tend to be disproportionately affected by poverty.
In the United States, Hispanic and African American populations tend to be disproportionately affected by poverty.

For administrative purposes, government officials use the poverty guidelines which are determined by the Department of Health and Human services. The rubric for determining these guidelines was developed by Mollie Orshansky in the 1960s. Families are assessed in terms of these guidelines when they apply for services like food stamps and state funded healthcare. In 2007, the poverty guideline was $20,650 US for a family of four; for larger households, add $3,480 US for each person. In Alaska and Hawaii, the poverty guidelines are slightly higher, reflecting different costs of living in these areas.

In the United States, up to 20% of households have insufficient food resources in any given year.
In the United States, up to 20% of households have insufficient food resources in any given year.

Some people prefer to think about the poverty level in more relative terms, by comparing the incomes of various Americans against each other. For example, the standard of living for Americans making the bottom 10% of the nation's income is radically different than that of those who are making the top 10%. Relative measures can help to highlight issues which are hidden by more absolute measures. Many critics of the government's attempts at establishing a poverty level argue that these levels are laughably low, and that it is not realistic to expect a family to actually live on this much money, or on even less.

In the United States, officials adhere to poverty guidelines determined by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
In the United States, officials adhere to poverty guidelines determined by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Some groups in the United States are especially at risk for living below the poverty level. People under 18 are the most likely to be living in poverty, and the United States has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the developed world. African American and Hispanic populations also tend to be more poor. Studies have also shown that members of the lower class tend to cycle in and out of poverty, illustrating the issue that many people who are actively working are still considered too poor to fulfill their basic needs under federal guidelines. People who are living in poverty face issues with completing their educations, staying healthy, and accessing the food that they need.

People struggling with poverty often have poor living conditions.
People struggling with poverty often have poor living conditions.

There are a number of causes for poverty, and a number of ways in which to fight poverty. It is important to remember that poverty levels are only one way of assessing poverty, and that there are numerous other ways to think about this extremely unfortunate social issue. By thinking about poverty from multiple angles, you can understand the root causes and possible solutions more fully.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


My little brother and I live with our grandma after she adopted us from foster care. I was about 6 or 7 and my little brother was like 4 years old. I'm 16 now and he's 13, but she makes about $10,000 or less a year for three people. We don't get food stamps or welfare. We live in a low income apartment but she does get an adoption assistance check which helps but she didn't apply or anything. They just knew she would need more money because there were four of us altogether, but the other two are gone. One left and the other got arrested and put into a group home.


We receive food stamps. I am disabled with two kids and my husband lost his job a year ago due to his employer embezzling. My MS was discovered after my children were born and I had a tubal litigation to prevent further pregnancies. Life changes and it's disgusting to read comments like "you shouldn't have had kids", etc. Not everyone is out to sit all day and collect a few dollars for food. In fact, rarely do people take advantage, but people sure as hell like to perpetuate the myth.

My husband used to commute 90 miles to his job which paid a whopping $13 an hour -- for a non-union electrician. We were grateful for it, even though half his paycheck went to gas. He cannot find work within a 20 mile radius, hence the food stamps. Four people, $250 a month. Everything is factored in: your home, your car, all accounts, etc. These are all considered assets. So to the couple who is $50 over the limit, your car counts, and so does the child of the couple you know who receives food stamps (a child may not eat huge amounts, but they do eat and their existence factors in a lot of other costs a childless couple doesn't have).

People like to complain, but they don't like to take the time and research valid facts of how much taxpayers give to food stamps, or that most people receiving them are elderly, disabled and most likely were taxpayers themselves. I have read ugly comments saying what people should and should not be allowed to have on food stamps, and I may opt for the healthiest choices I can, like vegetables and grains, while others take quick, frozen meals and treats, but so what? You judge a person's entire life on one grocery order? What if it's for a birthday and that is all their child will get?

Even if it isn't, the government spends trillions on war and doesn't ask your permission. Why should you begrudge a hungry person a damn candy bar? Would you feel better having them lick the bottom of your shoe? They deserve less because they aren't suffering enough already? Maybe they go home and have no heat, or no oven. Maybe they are living in their car! What is wrong with people that we are so quick to hate a total stranger in one glance?

Some people work like animals in factories their entire lives and then their place of employment goes bankrupt and closes, and you stand there looking down at them, judging them? You do not know what another person is going through. What happened to kindness? There are so many problems in this world the last thing we should be doing is hating people because they need help. Maybe instead of sneering you can offer them a job? Or a ride to work? Maybe you could talk to them? Maybe you could act like a caring human being? Maybe you should direct your anger where it belongs and research US wealth distribution and what makes it so.


Or maybe people can learn to budget themselves and quit asking for charity. I'm already ticked that my $18,000 job is now a $14,000 one thanks to the communist in office.

I grew up with nothing, I still have nothing, and I don't want any help. People need to learn some personal responsibility. I'm a Marine combat vet with severe physical problems. I tried to get an appointment with the VA in October 2010. It's now 2013 and they are still "processing" my application. I can't feel my right foot, I have massive ringing in my ears I take over the counter pain meds like candy for my back, neck, knees, and ankle. And people are complaining about their finances? Please. Why the hell do I have to pay for someone else to sit around all day and not work probably use drugs too? People can get a job and contribute, but they have that typical commie attitude: why do for myself when others can do for me? Yeah, first it's generous government assistance. Next thing you know, you aren't allowed to own anything privately. It'll all be for community use: your car, your home, your spouse – all community now. If that's what Americans want – communism -- then I am embarrassed to know I served a country full of people who would rather the government take care of them. They realize we are 17 trillion dollars in debt, right? The government giving away money to freeloaders isn't helping. Of course I generalize, but there are always more options available before government assistance. You may just be too ignorant to see it.


I see a lot of posts about single mothers and deadbeat fathers. What about the deadbeat mothers and great single fathers? I believe it's unfair how we are judging and not looking at the whole perspective here. Also, there are several single mothers who are single "parents" (and I quote that because of lack of a better word) due to their own irresponsibility.

I know three single mothers off the top of my head who have three to four children, all from different men, whom they never had a lasting relationship with because they cheated numerous times. It appears from the outside that they are taking care of these children, when I know their houses are a mess (cps calls a week before they arrive so you can appear to have your stuff together) and I have yet to see the children bathed.

So, although there are several single mothers, there are single fathers, and single people who, honestly, choose to be single.


I believe there are more people like me making under $16,000 a year and that we are more than the middle class. So many people live way beyond their means and don't even think about how much better they have it than a worker like me.


Amazing all the posts I see condemning single parents. Contrary to popular belief, most single parents didn't choose to be single parents and most of us are not on state assistance.

My ex started drinking after his parents died and decided he couldn't "handle" the responsibility of parenting. I have worked up to three jobs at a time to put food on the table. I have a college degree which I had to pay for myself but still earn under the poverty level. I work night shift in a factory because it pays more than the positions in my degree field.

I don't get court ordered child support because my ex is considered "disabled" due to his alcoholism. I am not eligible for housing, food stamps, blah, blah, blah, but we get by. We don't have many extras, and don't even have television. I drive a 20 year old vehicle with 250K + miles, my kids don't wear Hollister and we grow much of our own food. I make less money now and things are more expensive than in the past, but we adjusted, adapted and live within our means.

It seems to me more of the people in this country complaining are the ones who are upset over their McMansion mortgage, the Beemer repair costs and not being able to afford that month long tropical vacation. Sigh. If I only had it that rough.

The economy woes are not the fault of the poor, but the fault of careless spending by companies and our government. Give me a break!


Keep electing politicians like Mitt who care only about themselves and are defined by their hangers on. The only people he will look after when he is elected are those rich donors who provided him with his campaign money.


It really hacks me off that my fiance and I don't qualify for food stamps because we make $50 over the allowable amount for a household of two. However, they don't factor in vehicle expenses (we have two cars, need gas, insurance, etc.) when they calculate eligibility for food stamps because their logic is that you can just take the bus. Well, not when we both work nights, no we can't.

And yet, a friend of mine (she and her fiance make about the same as we do, perhaps even a bit higher) get over $500 in food stamps because they have a two-year-old son. Um, excuse me? A two-year-old? How much, exactly, does a two-year-old child eat? Maybe a third of what an adult does? Come on.

Combined, my fiance and I make around $12,000 a year ($1000 a month), our rent is $455, electric is usually $150, gas is $250 (for both cars), insurance $100 for a month. And we're supposed to eat, how?


I just got hired at a well known pizza place as assistant manager, with a starting salary of $20K a year. And from reading this, that's right at the poverty threshold? How can this be? I've been looking for work for two years now, hoping for better, and was excited to get this, but how is it that that I can become an assistant manager, and be at poverty threshold? Really?

But, as I read other responses, I can see that many have it way harder than I do, so I should be thankful that I just have work, and as good a job as I've just managed to get, shouldn't i?


It should be a crime in this country that companies like Wal-mart stay in business, exploiting workers, paying minimum wage, cutting hours to ensure that they never qualify for health coverage. Due to my condition I had to go on disability, I could not survive on part-time work with no health care coverage.

My condition will kill you left untreated. Can't rack up student loan debt, I'm 37. Not in this economy. Pay attention, jackasses quit blaming the poor because the government lied to you about what they did with your tax dollars. People who shop at Wal-mart don't even pay their bills, pay in cash when you go there or Amex will cancel your line.


No, number 21. "Getting out of poverty" is not 'real simple'. You're 'real simple', maybe, but the causes of poverty and the circumstances of those in it can be quite complex and difficult to overcome. Maybe you should save the mealy mouthed exhortations for your high school buddies.


After watching a young mother push one child in a stroller across a busy intersection with another in hand, my first thought was "...another girl who should have not done what she did...". Then I looked again - she was caring for the children. I did not see a man in sight. So, as you blame the mothers - think of the fathers.

A mother is generally limited to one child per nine months. Just how many are the fathers responsible for? At least that mother (and many others) were taking responsibility. I can't say the same for many of the "sperm donors". Give credit where credit is due. And to that unknown mother I saw, my apologies. Your children were not expendable and you're trying.


For a single person, what is the poverty level?


#8 is uninformed if he/she thinks that people from other countries come here and do not get government help.

How do you think they are able to set up a business, buy a new car, house, etc. if they are not getting help from our government while using their money from their country to do all the rest. Don't you know that it is easier for a foreigner to get assistance then for a US resident? And as for #10, how do you know that all the single moms out there have kids from different dads, or didn't use birth control? It could be that they got divorced, had a dead beat husband/boyfriend that decided that caring for a family was too much and left them, or maybe the husband/boyfriend died. Unless you are in their shoes you should keep your opinion to yourself.


I am the oldest of five children and my parents only helped my four younger brothers in college. I was the only girl and always heard: you are the oldest and you must set an example. I was left out receiving educational funds from my family but I managed to get an AND degree after my two young children went to school. Took me longer as I went part time until the last two years.

I continued taking classes and the hospital helped pay that cost. It was difficult but I earned my BSN. Unfortunately I was injured at work. Did not receive any settlement but have been unable to work for 21 years. I had some savings but that is now gone. I do not know how I will make ends meet. There is no possibility of working again. My medical care is expensive.

My insurance is very costly but must be maintained or else I cannot afford my care. I have worked with people who abused the system and I am against all that but how can that be stopped? They are encouraged to do this.

There are many people who seriously need assistance and will never be able to work. Others need assistance, like I did when I was going to school. Hopefully the percentage is not great of people working so hard to get a degree and then having it yanked from them.

I was good at my job. I earned a decent living. I am not able to get out and party and many things I enjoyed I can no longer do. My life is seriously impaired. People do not realize how serious as I do not go around complaining. But something has to give. We are on our way to making this country a socialist country or worse: a third world country.

Imagine your surroundings without the amenities we have become used to. Most of us who are disabled will die. I go for days without anyone coming to my house. People do not call and check. Hopefully, I will have phone service if needed for emergencies. I would have loved to be able to continued working and would work as long as possible.

Life just is not fair. Some people do have better situations that others but we have to learn to live with what we are given in life and make the best of whatever it is at the moment. I get very frustrated at times because most people do not understand what it is to be disabled.


I have been unemployed for over a year and a half. I have a college degree, but that seems to be working against me. Prospective employers will usually hire a high school graduate over a college graduate, especially for retail positions. I'm not sure why, but it's true.

But if I do not list the college degree on the application, then I have lied and am subject to termination. It's a lose/lose situation. I am living with family, and am grateful for that privilege, but what am I to do?

The jobs that are available in this area would not pay enough for me to move out on my own, so what am I supposed to do?


I am fifteen years old. My whole life we have lived on government supplied income. My father suffers from a back injury which prevents him from doing any work. My mother suffers severe mental problems because of a very chaotic and horrible past.

We make around 13,000 a year. My father uses that to support my sister and I. It's tough. But we're okay. And I am so thankful for the assistance we are given.

A few months ago, I listened to two of my closest friends discuss how ridiculous it is for people to accept financial aid- they even made a comment about financial aid provided for college students. I was purely disgusted, but I didn't have the courage to stand up against their words or comment when they told me "not to be offended."

After reading some of these comments, I do. And when I am older, holding a masters degree in my hand and getting ready to start a great career I will pride myself on the taxes taken from my paycheck used to help people like my parents.

This isn't a choice. Mistakes and bad circumstances lead to this. But it's the job of the government to support the weak. After all, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.


I am 28, married and have two children that are both in school and I am in college. We currently live on $20,000 a year and we are very comfortable. We only have one car at the moment, but that is all we need. My husband cannot seem to find a job right now, but as I said before, we are doing OK.

My kids are in dance classes and cheerleading, and we eat a good home cooked meal every night. If people would stop trying to live above their means then they would be better off. We had to learn that the hard way.

As for all of these people on here who are talking about all these single mothers would not have had unprotected sex, there is more than one way to become a single mother, people. None of the single mothers I know ran around having unprotected sex with everyone they could just to get federal assistance. They are widowed or their husband left them because the sorry man that he was couldn't handle the responsibility of being a parent.

I just don't understand how people in the United States of America can be so selfish and greedy! I still give to charity and I sponsor at least one child from our community every year at Christmas so they can have a nice holiday season just like everyone else.

People, just imagine if you were in their shoes. No one wants to ask for help but sometimes it is necessary.


Wow. Some of you need to stop and reread some of the stuff you're spouting. Some of you may have it easy but others do not.

I personally have three kids and my mother to support because my ex-husband disappeared. Literally. I don't receive child support, but I work and hard. I can't get another job working this one 60 hours a week and can barely make ends meet.

I don't qualify for any government help at all.

So to those of you with all the sage advice and condemning attitudes, I say to you, "what the heck should I do better?"

P.S. Maybe you should learn to give a little.


Americans are the most selfish, hateful, self-centered people in the world. If the government isn't supposed to care for its people, who is?


getting out of poverty is real simple. you spend less than you earn, you live on less than you make, if you do not make enough, very simple, get another job and make more, does not matter if it is $10,000 or $100,000 a year, save and keep saving, live on less than you earn, and don't expect government to take from someone else to give to you! Go earn your own!


I'm sorry. i stumbled on this site by error and after reading all the comments, not knowing any of you, really, go back and read what you wrote.

i myself have been unemployed for three years and i am still blessed with no money in the bank but i manage. sure i get frustrated but you know, i have barely, a roof over my head and i eat daily and you know, it's not even a wonder. i just know I'm blessed, just like all of you.

You're blessed -- you really are. Just think about it. It could be much worse. Example: put yourself in a third world country? Instead of worrying, try praying -- it really works. Let's not forget the power of that. I truly believe it will get better. Stay hopeful. That's the key. Anything's possible.


Amen, no. 15!

America is so selfish it's sickening. i wish and pray to God that there will be some sort of change and help for less fortunate people who are living on nothing.

not to change the subject or anything, it is one particular group of people who have ruined the US and who have been in office, unfortunately, for the past eight years.

Honestly, how many who have responded are actually doing well and not scraping by? You don't see any rich folk commenting on this site.

So number 10. What if she was raped? why shouldn't the government help? Because it might get in the way of your precious, little perfect life?


The bible says that the poor will always be among us. God is the one who instituted help for the poor. If one reads the story of Ruth, you will see that God mandated that field owners leave extra for the poor to come and pick up.

I believe in hard work, dedication, and wise choices, however, we still need to help the poor. Family relations have taken a serious dip. Families should be there to help one another during the good and the bad. There is no way an elderly man should starve or barely keep his electricity going. Where are the children? Anyway, I also believe that poverty is a social issue.


People who were once well off and had children now find they can no longer find jobs because companies want young people so they can pay less and the older families are ending up on the street. If your expenses for basic necessities exceed your income you should qualify for some sort of help.


No one wants to hear this, but poverty has become a social problem. This is not necessarily a personal problem anymore.

People have the stereotypical images stuck in their heads: a single mom with four kids and one on the way, all different fathers, living off of the government. That is not true!

You hear and see all the "bad" people taking advantage of the system, but you never hear how a young couple trying to better their lives are on government assistance while they are getting an education to ultimately help the economy or an elderly man who is a vet needing some additional assistance after the death of his spouse.

I think that we need to recognize this as a social problem and treat it as such. Other great nations, like ours, have instilled higher taxes, but have given each and every one of their citizens a house, food, a car, and all utilities.

Maybe we need to sacrifice a little in exchange for the well-being of our nation. Everyone in this country is selfish in the sense that "It's my money, I earned it." Intrinsic value goes a long way.


I am a single person living on under 10,000 a year. If it were not for my elderly parents I would be out on the street. I work but can't make ends meet even living at home. Been turned down repeatedly for assistance. Though there are single parents making more money than I do and getting all the help they need. dgau


My wife and I have lived on $20K/year for the past five years. We get no government help. We pay everything including our own health insurance. We live in the greatest country on earth and live well. We just refuse to buy all the consumer crap. Please stop the crying.


My spouse is disabled and does not work so he draws a check of $1037.00 per month. I am now considered profoundly deaf, and cannot get a job but was turned down for an SSI assistance with medicaid included. Our rent is $525 per month. With power companies upping utilities our power costs us since he is on oxygen 24/7 and it runs $200 per month. Now figure in phone, gas for the car to get to doctors as well as grocery stores and you tell me what is left.


after two back surgeries I am now disabled, lost my job and on public assistance. I receive $200 a month in cash and $205 a month in food stamps. My yearly income including food stamps is $4,860. There is no place in America one can rent for $200, never-mind electric to cook/store one's food, or heating, or water.


Perhaps all the single mothers should have not had unprotected sex. Then, perhaps, they could fend for themselves, and not bring another mouth to feed into this world, knowing full well you could not take care of that person. It is not the government's job to take care of poor people -- go take care of yourself!


anyone who makes over $20,000 should not be eligble for a cola. that would save billions. mrpao


why is it that people from other countries come here and make successes out of their lives without taxpayers' help and the people in the US are on food stamps looking for their government daddy and mommy to help them? as long as people have someone else to blame instead of their own past decisions they will always be a burden to others.


As unemployment continues to rise morale continues to dip. What has our government gotten us into? How may people will have to suffer?


I'm a single mother in Maine living on way below 15000 a year with a two year old son. I am angry that I often have to choose between keeping electricity and heat or putting food on the table. I have even gone for assistance but the assistance given is barely enough to survive for a week! I know there are so many people in this country living in poverty and it is an outrage that it isn't really recognized by our government like it should be.


I have earned both $13,000 a year and $65,000 a year. I have found that people who make around $50,000-80,000 a year and live in affluent communities whine a LOT about how it is impossible to live on their salary. Tell that to all the single parents making it on a fraction of that.


I 'live' on $10,000 per year! I wish I had $20000. My mortgage is about $550 per month. I am 75, worked all my life. No longer have my spouse. Last year bush gave us $13 per month COL increase. There are so many of us and no one wants to discuss our situation. jnt


Dear wiseGeek, I am learning something new every time you send me articles like this one. William Lew

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    • In Alaska, the poverty line is higher than in the contiguous United States to reflect the higher cost of living.
      In Alaska, the poverty line is higher than in the contiguous United States to reflect the higher cost of living.
    • The U.S. has one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world.
      The U.S. has one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world.
    • In the United States, Hispanic and African American populations tend to be disproportionately affected by poverty.
      In the United States, Hispanic and African American populations tend to be disproportionately affected by poverty.
    • In the United States, up to 20% of households have insufficient food resources in any given year.
      In the United States, up to 20% of households have insufficient food resources in any given year.
    • In the United States, officials adhere to poverty guidelines determined by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
      In the United States, officials adhere to poverty guidelines determined by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
    • People struggling with poverty often have poor living conditions.
      People struggling with poverty often have poor living conditions.
    • Extreme cases of poverty can result in homelessness.
      Extreme cases of poverty can result in homelessness.