Measures of Poverty
Poverty Thresholds and Guidelines

There are two official measures of poverty issued annually by the federal government:

  • Census Bureau poverty thresholds
  • Department of Health and Human Services poverty guidelines
Poverty Thresholds

Both of the official poverty measures are intended to identify the level of income necessary to meet basic needs.

The Census Bureau’s poverty thresholds are intended for use as a statistical yardstick.  The Bureau calculates official poverty thresholds that vary by family size and composition (family members’ age) using money income before taxes not including capital gains or noncash benefits (such as public housing, Medicaid, and food stamps).

If a family’s total income is less than the family’s threshold, then that family and every individual in it is considered in poverty. The official poverty thresholds are updated annually for inflation using Consumer Price Index (CPI-U).

Frequency and Timespan: Annual data for 1959 to the present

Geographic level of coverage: National; some regional data

Tables available online

Source:
U.S. Census Bureau. How the Census Bureau Measures Poverty.  (PDF)   Accessed 2/13/2012

 

Poverty Guidelines

The poverty guidelines are issued annually by the Department of Health and Human Services.  They are a simplification of the official poverty thresholds calculated by the Census Bureau and are intended for administrative purposes, primarily determining financial eligibility for certain federal assistance programs.

Frequency and Timespan: Annual data, from 1959 to the present

Geographic level of coverage: one set of guidelines for the the 48 contiguous states; separate guidelines for Alaska, and Hawaii

Publications and Tables are available online

Source:
U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.  Frequently Asked Questions Related to Poverty Guidelines and Poverty. (PDF ) Accessed 2/13/2012

By 2010, the Census Bureau employed optical scanners and computer software were used to convert handwritten questionnaires into electronic data. Photo courtesy U.S. Census Bureau.

How is poverty measured in the United States?
Thresholds, guidelines and other estimates

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.

U.S. Census Bureau headquarters in Maryland.

What are the poverty thresholds today?
from the Census Bureau

Poverty thresholds are the dollar amounts used by the U.S. Census Bureau to determine poverty status. The most recent thresholds issued are for 2014.

Official Poverty Statistics
from the Current Population Survey

 

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. 

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