What is “deep poverty”?
Data on those with incomes below 50 percent of poverty thresholds

The U.S. Census Bureau defines “deep poverty” as living in a household with a total cash income below 50 percent of its poverty threshold. According to the Census Bureau, 20.03 million people lived in deep poverty in 2021. Those in deep poverty represented 6.2 percent of the total population and 48.4 percent of those in poverty. 

While poverty thresholds vary by the size and household composition, for a single individual under 65 years old, deep poverty would be an income below $7,049 in 2021. For a family of four with two children, it would be $13,740.

Who lives in deep poverty?

According to Census Bureau Data, a larger percentage of children younger than 18 live in deep poverty than adults in any other age group. In 2021, 7.2 percent of all children lived in deep poverty. For comparison, only 4.2 percent of those over the age of 65 lived in deep poverty in the same year.

In terms of race and Hispanic origin, Census Bureau data show that those who are American Indian or Alaska Native are most likely to be in deep poverty, at a rate of 10.3 percent in 2021. Those who are Black or Hispanic experienced rates of 9.3 and 7.9 percent respectively. Those who are White and White, not Hispanic are least likely to live in deep poverty, with rates of 4.8 and 3.9 percent respectively in 2021.

What does research show about deep poverty?

Several researchers have looked closely at the problem of deep poverty. In one study, researchers at the Urban Institute used the Census Bureau definition of deep poverty to look at data for 2012. They found that deep poverty tends to be a chronic condition that persists generation after generation.

According to this study, about half of those in deep poverty are under 25 years of age, and more than one-third are single mothers and their children. The study also found that about three percent of children spend at least half of their childhood in deep poverty. Research shows that poverty during childhood has lasting consequences on health, developmental and educational outcomes, which can lead to persistent poverty across generations.

The Urban Institute study also found that three quarters of adults in deep poverty have not worked in the past year. The obstacles to work for adults in this group are complex and persistent—health, education or developmental issues. Because the current safety need is largely conditional on work, households in deep poverty, and the children who live in them, receive little additional support.

How else can deep poverty be defined?

Researchers at the University of Michigan National Poverty Center have also looked at extreme poverty over the period 1996 to 2011. They used the World Bank definition of deep poverty as living on $2 a day per person or less, an income level dramatically lower than the Census Bureau definition.

The study showed that from 1996 to 2011, the number of U.S. households living of $2 a day per person or less increased from 636,000 to 1.46 million. This included in 2.8 million children in 2011, which is about 16 percent of all children in poverty.

The study found that the number of poor households living on only $2 a day per person increased significantly from 1996 to 2011. These households accounted for ten percent of poor households in 1996, 15 percent by 2000, and nearly 20 percent by 2011.

The Michigan researchers also looked at the impact of SNAP (food stamps) on these extremely poor household and found that if SNAP benefits are included in calculations of household income the number of extremely poor households with children is cut in half. They estimate that SNAP currently saves 1.4 million children from this extreme poverty.

Updated 12/14/22


For more information:

Creamer, J, Shrider, EA, Burns, K, and Chen, F. Poverty in the United States: 2021. Census Bureau, September 2022.

Lei, Serena. 2013. “The Unwaged War on Deep Poverty.” The Urban Institute.

Shaefer, H. Luke et al. 2012. “Extreme Poverty in the United States, 1996 to 2011.” National Poverty Center Policy Brief #28.