Each year, the U.S. Census Bureau releases a number of public
reports on the level of poverty in the previous year and trends
in the level and composition of the poor from year to year. This
issue of Fast Focus seeks to make sense of these various measures
at the federal, state, and local levels.
There are two measures of poverty issued annually by the federal
government: Poverty thresholds from the
Census Bureau and poverty guidelines
issued by the Department of Health and Human Services. Both
of these measures are intended to identify the level of income
necessary to meet basic needs.
The official poverty statistics, which
have been in use since the 1960s, calculate poverty status
by comparing a family’s or an individual’s cash
income to their poverty threshold. If a family’s
total income is less than the family’s threshold, then that
family and every individual in it is considered in
The Census Bureau produces annual reports providing numbers and
rates of people in poverty with select breakdown by demographic
and socio-economic characteristics.
In 2011, the Census Bureau issued a paper that laid groundwork
for developing a new Supplemental Poverty Measure
(SPM) for the United States. This
paper illustrate differences between the official measure of
poverty and a poverty measure that takes account of
in-kind benefits received by families and nondiscretionary
expenses that they must pay.
Prior to the publication of the Research Supplemental Poverty
Measure in 2011, the Census Bureau conducted a variety of
studies looking at how income distribution changes
when the definition of income is varied to include or
exclude different components. These
reports were issued irregularly and, though unofficial and
experimental in nature, add to our understanding of poverty.