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

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

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?
The two federal poverty measures in the U.S.

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.


2016 poverty threshold

What are the poverty thresholds today?
from the Census Bureau

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 rate.

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.