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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.