What does living at the poverty line look like in the US? (2024)

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In 1963, a statistician for the Social Security Administration named Mollie Orshansky developed what we commonly refer to as the poverty line — a federal marker that indicates who is poor in America.

Before then, the government lacked a method to measure how many families struggled to afford basic necessities. Orshansky drew from her experience as a former Department of Agriculture (USDA) economist. She based her calculations on one of the most critical expenses for a family: its food bill. By tallying the cost to feed a family of four, based on a no-frills food plan developed by the USDA, she calculated the corresponding income needed to cover these meals plus living expenses.

Orshansky applied this model to create 124 poverty thresholds, accounting for age, gender, family size, and other designations.

What does the poverty line look like today?

To this day, the Census Bureau issues its poverty thresholds based on Orshansky’s work. These figures take into account household size and income, as well as other factors, such as age. These poverty thresholds are used for statistical purposes to calculate the number of Americans living in poverty. They are also the starting points from which federal “poverty guidelines” are calculated.

According to the most recent report issued in January 2023, the poverty threshold for a family of four is $29,960. For an individual, the poverty threshold is $14,891.

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issues its poverty guidelines based on the Census Bureau’s poverty thresholds. They’re used to determine the financial eligibility for certain government programs, including Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known as SNAP or sometimes referred to as food stamps), the National School Lunch Program, and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

According to HHS’s measurement, a family of four in 2023 would be considered impoverished if their income is $30,000 or lower. Alaska and Hawaii use a slightly different measure due to a higher cost of living in those states. The poverty guideline is $37,500 in Alaska and $34,500 in Hawaii.

Comparatively, the 2023 median household income for a family of four is $98,487.

How many people are living near the poverty line?

The Census Bureau estimated that in 2021, 11.6% of Americans — roughly 38 million people — lived at or below the poverty level. That year, the poverty threshold[1] was $27,740 for a family of four and $13,788 for an individual.

The share of people living in poverty in the US has generally been decreasing since its most recent peak in 2010 — on the heels of the Great Recession — when the poverty rate was 15.1%.

The percentage of children in poverty has also been decreasing over the last decade. In 2010, 1 in 4 children (25.3%) lived in poverty in America. In 2021, the rate of childhood poverty was 16.1%.

What does spending look like at the poverty line?

Since 2020, the cost of managing daily life in the US has risen, especially when it comes to paying for essentials such as food and fuel — and Americans have taken notice. A survey conducted by the US Census Bureau in June and July 2023 showed that over one-third of Americans find it somewhat or very difficult to pay for their usual household expenses.

For many of the poorest Americans, essential expenses can be a heavy burden. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data shows that lower-income households tend to experience higher inflation rates than those with higher incomes. This is partly because poorer households must spend a larger portion of their incomes on housing, food, and healthcare.

People who live near the poverty line spend a larger share of their income on housing. Compared to the national average of 33.8%, families and individuals earning under $30,000 paid 41.2% of their income on housing, according to a BLS Consumer Expenditure Survey. This includes the cost of rent or a mortgage, utilities, repairs, and other miscellaneous items such as furniture and cleaning supplies.

The poorest Americans pay the highest share of their income on housing.

Share of annual household expenditures by household income level
All consumersLess than $15,000$15,000 to $29,999$30,000 to $39,999$40,000 to $49,999$50,000 to $69,999$70,000 to $99,999$100,000 to $149,999$150,000 to $199,999$200,000 and more
Personal insurance and pensions11.8%1.2%2.8%4.8%6.4%8.7%11.3%13.9%16.4%18.3%
Cash contributions3.6%3.1%3%3.2%3.7%2.7%2.4%3.2%3.5%5.8%
Apparel and services2.6%3.8%2.4%2.7%2.8%2.7%2.6%2.3%2.4%2.7%
Personal care products and services1.2%1.3%1.2%1.3%1.2%1.1%1.2%1.1%1.1%1%
Alcoholic beverages0.8%0.7%0.7%0.8%0.6%0.7%0.8%0.8%0.9%1.1%
Tobacco products and smoking supplies0.5%1.3%0.8%0.9%0.8%0.7%0.6%0.4%0.2%0.1%

Similarly, lower-income Americans paid a higher share of their income on food. The average family or individual spent 12.4% of their income on food in 2021. For households with incomes less than $15,000, that share was 16.7%, and for those whose incomes were between $15,000 and $29,000, the share was 14.1%.

There were also disparities in healthcare. The average spent on items such as insurance, medical services, and drugs was 8.1% of a household’s income. For those with incomes less than $15,000, that share was 8.6%, and for those who earned between $15,000 and $29,000, it rose to 10.9%.

Low-income families are also more likely to be cost-burdened by childcare expenses. According to Census Bureau data, family childcare costs increased by 25% between 2015 and 2020.

Explore more data on poverty in America, and get the data directly in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter.

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The Census Bureau's poverty threshold reflects the weighted average threshold, sourced from the 2022 Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (CPS ASEC).

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What does living at the poverty line look like in the US? (2024)


What does living at the poverty line look like in the US? ›

In 2022, household incomes below 125% of poverty correspond to annual incomes below $34,500 for a family of four or $17,500 for an individual. 7 Fifteen percent of Americans live in households with annual incomes below these levels.

What is considered living in poverty in us? ›

Persons in family/householdPoverty guideline
5 more rows

What is it like living under the poverty line? ›

In addition to lasting effects of childhood poverty, adults living in poverty are at a higher risk of adverse health effects from obesity, smoking, substance use, and chronic stress. Finally, older adults with lower incomes experience higher rates of disability and mortality.

What is the salary cut off for living in poverty in the United States? ›

The Poverty Threshold in 2024

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services uses the Census Bureau threshold to determine who is eligible for certain government assistance programs, like SNAP (food stamps). Under their guidelines, a family of four is considered impoverished if they earn $30,000 or less per year.

Is 30k a year poverty for a single person? ›

In 2023, the federal poverty level definition of low income for a single-person household is $14,580 annually. Each additional person in the household adds $5,140 to the total. For example, the poverty guideline is $30,000 per year for a family of four.

Is $40 000 a year poverty? ›

Well, it depends. A $40,000 salary may be sufficient for an individual in a low-cost area, but it may not be enough for a family to live comfortably in most parts of the US. Rising inflation has made it more challenging to live on a $40,000 salary, but it still exceeds the poverty threshold for families.

What is low income vs poverty? ›

Families with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty threshold—$52,492 for two adults and two related children in 2020—are often classified as “low-income.” Families are classified as being in “deep poverty” if their income falls below 50% of the poverty guidelines ($13,123 for a family of four).

How to tell if someone is poor? ›

Signs of Poverty & Neglect:
  1. Poor hygiene and cleanliness*
  2. Inappropriate uniform, shoes or clothing*
  3. Lack of food provided or money for food*
  4. Malnutrition*
  5. Missing school equipment or other required items*
  6. Poor or inappropriate living conditions*
  7. Negative impact on mental health and self-worth*
Jul 20, 2023

What is the difference between being poor and living in poverty? ›

Poor. The Oxford dictionary gives the definition of poverty as “the state of being extremely poor” and the definition for poor as “lacking sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal in a society”.

What classifies someone as living in poverty? ›

Poverty is measured in the United States by comparing a person's or family's income to a set poverty threshold or minimum amount of income needed to cover basic needs. People whose income falls under their threshold are considered poor. The U.S. Census Bureau is the government agency in charge of measuring poverty.

What is considered the working poor? ›

The working poor are working people whose incomes fall below a given poverty line due to low-income jobs and low familial household income.

How much money is considered poor? ›

According to the most recent report issued in January 2023, the poverty threshold for a family of four is $29,960. For an individual, the poverty threshold is $14,891. The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issues its poverty guidelines based on the Census Bureau's poverty thresholds.

What is considered low-income American salary? ›

Where you rank by income. According to the Census Bureau's Income in the United States: 2022 report, the median household income is $74,580 (a 2.3% decline from 2021), while household income levels for each class level are as follows: Lower class: less than or equal to $30,000. Lower-middle class: $30,001 – $58,020.

Is $4000 a month enough to live on? ›

The answer is yes, almost 1 in 3 retirees today are spending between $2,000 and $3,999 per month, implying that $4,000 is a good monthly income for a retiree.

Is $25 an hour a livable wage? ›

An analysis of the living wage (as calculated in December 2022 and reflecting a compensation being offered to an individual in 2023), compiling geographically specific expenditure data for food, childcare, health care, housing, transportation, and other necessities, finds that: The living wage in the United States is ...

What is a comfortable salary for a single person? ›

But just how much does a single person in California need to make to live comfortably? A new study from Smart Asset determined that a person must make at least $ 89,190 to get by comfortably.

What household salary is considered poverty? ›

48 Contiguous States
Household/ Family Size2024 Federal Poverty Level for the 48 Contiguous States (Annual Income)
6 more rows
Mar 6, 2024

How does the US government define poverty? ›

Let's use 2021 poverty data from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as an example. Using the official poverty measure, a family of four would be considered in poverty if their annual household income was $26,500 or less before taxes.

What is the difference between poor and poverty? ›

The Oxford dictionary gives the definition of poverty as “the state of being extremely poor” and the definition for poor as “lacking sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal in a society”.

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