This FAQ answers common questions about poverty in the U.S. These include how many people live in poverty and who they are, as well as dynamics that affect life in poverty, such as geography, age, race and health.
There are two official measures of poverty created by the U.S. Census Bureau. The poverty guidelines and poverty thresholds are both measures that are intended to identify the level of income necessary to meet basic needs. Both are updated annually.
According to the Census Bureau, in 2013 nearly 20 million people lived in families with income below one-half of their poverty threshold. While thresholds vary by the size and composition of the household, for a single individual “deep poverty” would be an income below $6060 in 2013.
The War on Poverty began in 1964 with a stream of legislation that in two years would build the foundation of today’s social safety net. Today’s safety net includes means-tested programs, which require proof of low income to qualify, as well as major benefit programs which are not based on income, such as Social Security and Medicare.
A minimum wage is the lowest wage that employers may legally pay to workers. The first minimum wage law was enacted in 1894 in New Zealand.
With the passage of The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), the U.S. minimum wage was initially set at $0.25 per hour for covered workers. Since then, it has been raised 22 separate times–most recently, in July 2009, to $7.25 an hour.
In 2013, 45.3 million people were poor. The majority of the people who live below the poverty level do not work. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 10.5 million or 23 percent of the poor were “working poor.”
In 2014, about 1.3 million U.S. workers age 16 and over earned exactly the prevailing federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Another 1.7 million had wages below the federal minimum. Together these workers make up 4 percent of all hourly paid workers.
The U.S.D.A.’s Economic Research Service monitors the extent and severity of food insecurity in U.S. households through a supplement to the Current Population Survey. Responses to a series of 18 questions are used to determine whether a household is food insecure.
The official poverty statistics do not track individuals or households over time so there are no official data on poverty spells.
Despite the lack of official data, other surveys do provide the ability to track poverty status over time. Two recent studies have used differing data sources and methods to provide some insight into the characteristics of poverty spells.