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.
The official poverty rate is 11.6 percent, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimates for 2021. That year, an estimated 37.9 million Americans lived in poverty according to the official measure. Neither the rate nor the number differed significantly from 2020. According to the supplemental poverty measure, the poverty rate was 7.8 percent.
Each year, the U.S. Census Bureau counts people in poverty with
two measures. Both the official and supplemental poverty measures
are based on estimates of the level of income needed to cover
basic needs. Those who live in households with earnings below
those incomes are considered to be in poverty.
Poverty thresholds are the income dollar amounts used by the U.S.
Census Bureau solely as a statistical yardstick to determine a
household’s poverty status. They are issued each year in
September and are the basis for determining the national poverty
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.
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
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.
FSLA provided a number of federal protections for the first time
The “working poor” are people who spend 27 weeks or more in a
year in the labor force either working or looking for work but
whose incomes fall below the poverty
level. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,
about 9.5 million of people who spent at least 27 weeks in the
labor force were poor. That year, the working poor comprised 6.3
percent of all individuals in the labor force.
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.
In 2015, poverty rates across the four Census geographic regions
ranged from 11.7 percent in the Midwest, 12.4 percent in the
Northeast, 13.3 percent in the West and 15.3 percent in the
South. Because of the South’s largest share of the total U.S.
population, it has the largest number of people who live in
poverty compared to any other region.
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.