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Poverty in the United States

Poverty is still a big problem in the United States, especially for minorities and people living in rural areas. Improving education and health are keys to individuals and families rising above the poverty level.

Poverty is the human condition of being unable to obtain or provide a standard level of food, water and/or shelter for you or your family.

It exists in every country to varying degrees and is unlikely to disappear any time soon. The United States is considered the richest country in the world, and yet 37.9 million (11.5%) of its residents live in poverty.

Poverty is measured in two ways – absolute poverty and relative poverty.

Absolute poverty looks at the goods and services someone (or a family) cannot obtain.

Relative poverty looks at the context of the need, how one social group compares to others.

The official method of calculating America’s poverty levels was developed in the 1960s and has not been refined substantially since then. Critics maintain that the government overstates the U.S. poverty level because it counts people as impoverished who in generations past, would be considered as not living in poverty.

The highest poverty rate on record was 22% (1950s). The lowest was 10.5% (2019).

What Is the Definition of Poverty in America?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2022 Current Population Report, 37.9 million Americans are considered impoverished. The census supplemental poverty rate, which adjusts for how government programs keep people out of poverty, was at 12.4% in 2022.

The poverty rate for American children was 12.4%, the lowest since 1973, and the rate for people 65 and older was 10.2%, up from 8.9% in 2019.

Among the most impoverished are:

  • Those living in female-headed households with no husband present (23%).
  • Young adults without a high school diploma (25.2%).
  • Those living in a family whose head of household is unemployed (30%).
  • Minorities (19.5% for Black people).

These numbers reflect a gradual decline from the higher rates of the COVID era. In 2019, pre-COVID, the poverty rate of 10.5% was the lowest since the statistic was first kept in 1959. The rate rose to 11.6% by 2021, then declined to 11.5% by 2022.

Columbia University’s Center on Poverty & Social Policy estimated how the supplemental poverty rate changed on a monthly basis. Assessing the pre-covid rate at 15% (compared to the Census Bureau’s 10.5%), the center said the poverty rate peaked at 17.3% in August 2020, falling to 16% two months later, but concluded it would have been much worse without extraordinary government intervention.

Poverty in the United States in 2023

The face of poverty for most Americans is pictures of families in rundown housing in large cities where the industry has moved away.

The true face of poverty, however, is found in rural areas of the South and Southwest regions of the U.S. where living conditions are even more run down and industry never really started up.

The states with the highest poverty rates (based on a three-year average, 2020-22) come from those two areas. The top, or bottom, 10 are:

  1. New Mexico (18.2% of population living below the poverty line)
  2. Mississippi (17.8%)
  3. Louisiana (16.9%)
  4. Arkansas (15.9%)
  5. Kentucky (15.8%)
  6. Oklahoma (15.8%)
  7. West Virginia (15.6%)
  8. Alabama (14.8%)
  9. Texas (13.7%)
  10. (tie) North Carolina (13.3%)
    South Carolina (13.3%)

These areas have a long history of poverty and there are many factors contributing to it, but the most obvious are that they were agricultural economies first and foremost with light emphasis on education and innovation.

Absolute Poverty

Absolute poverty is a measure of the minimal requirements necessary to afford the minimal standards of life-sustaining essentials — food, clothing, shelter, clean water, sanitation, education and access to health care.

The standards are consistent over time and are the same in different countries. For example, one absolute measurement is the percentage of a population that consumes enough food daily to sustain the human body. This standard – 2,000 – 2,500 calories per day – is applied worldwide and across all cultures.

The World Bank defines poverty in absolute terms:

  • People anywhere in the world who are living on less than $1.90 per day are living in extreme poverty.
  • People living on less than $3.20 per day in lower middle-income countries and less than $5.50 in upper middle-income countries are living in moderate poverty.

For instance, in 2017, 6.5 million people in Europe and Central Asia lived in extreme poverty, compared with almost 431 million in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Relative Poverty

Relative poverty is a measurement of income inequality within a social context. It does not measure hardship or material deprivation, but rather the disparities of wealth among income groups.

For example, in the United States, a household that has a refrigerator, televisions, and air conditioning can be considered impoverished if its income falls below a certain threshold. In other countries, those households might be thought of as wealthy.

Poverty Levels Over Time

In the late 1950s, the poverty rate in the U.S. was approximately 22%, with just shy of 40 million Americans living in poverty. The rate declined steadily, reaching a low of 11.1% in 1973 and rising to a high of nearly 15% three times – in 1983, 1993 and 2011 – before hitting the all-time low of 10.5% in 2019. However, the 46.7 million Americans in poverty in 2014 was the most ever recorded.

Since the late 1960s, the poverty rate for people 65 or older has fallen dramatically. This drop could be ascribed to the enactment of the Medicare Program in 1965, which dramatically lowered out-of-pocket health care costs for this age group.

Since 1959, when the U.S. began recording data about poverty, the numbers reflect events, from legislation to military activity to pandemics. This chart shows those numbers.

Causes of Poverty in the United States

Impoverished families tend to have less education, more health problems and less access to nutritionally adequate food. They also are more likely to live in high-crime areas.

Education Levels

The more advanced one’s education, the greater the chance of achieving a secure economic future. High school graduation rates for African American and Hispanic students are almost 20% lower than for other ethnic groups, while their poverty rates greatly exceed the average.

Without the knowledge and skills required for well-compensated work in the modern workplace, each succeeding generation of undereducated adults merely replaces the one before it without achieving any upward mobility or escape from poverty.

The Catch-22 is that educational opportunity can actually limit financial security because of student loans and student debt.

Access to Healthcare

Health is also strongly related to income. Poor people have higher mortality rates, a higher prevalence of acute or chronic diseases and more emotional and behavioral issues.

  • The life expectancy of the richest 1% in the U.S. was 14.6 years longer than the poorest 1% for men and 10.1 years for women, according to a 2016 report by the Journal of the American Medical Association.
  • Overall life expectancy in the U.S. was a surprisingly low 76.4 years as of early 2023. That’s the lowest expectancy in over 20 years.
  • The mortality rate for African American infants (10.4 per 1,000 live births) was more than double that of white infants (4.4) in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Those in impoverished neighborhoods have a higher risk for mental illness, chronic disease, higher mortality, and lower life expectancy, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
  • Poor children are more than twice as likely to have unhealthy levels of lead in their blood than other children, according to the CDC.

Access to Food

Food poverty is defined as the inability to obtain healthy and affordable food. Poorer families tend to have low intakes of fruit and vegetables and high intakes of junk food. They also tend to suffer more from cancer, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

While food insecurity and poverty are not the same, they are related. Food insecurity means that the availability of nutritionally adequate food, or the ability to acquire it, is limited or uncertain. In 2022, 12.8% of U.S. households experienced food insecurity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Blacks and Hispanics were nearly twice as likely to face food insecurity as whites.


The relationship between poverty and crime is complex, and many factors are associated with poverty and crime, including unemployment, population density, high school dropout rate and incidence of drug use.

While difficult to quantify, some studies have indicated that as a particular population’s poverty rate increases, crime, particularly violent crime, tends to increase, as well.

Government Programs That Lift or Help Keep People Out of Poverty

Government benefits keep millions of Americans out of poverty, mostly women, children and the elderly. Social Security alone keeps approximately 27.3 million people above the poverty line, including 17.9 million senior citizens 65 or older. Refundable tax credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, kept 7.9 million people out of poverty, and food stamps have the same result for 3 million people.

If non-cash government aid programs were counted in the Census Bureau thresholds, food stamps would lift another 3.9 million Americans out of poverty. In addition, the combined Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit kept 9.2 million families from falling into poverty in 2010.

Other government programs target aspects of poverty:

  • Community Services Block Grant
  • Head Start
  • Low-Income Home Energy Assistance
  • Medicaid
  • Medicare prescription drug coverage
  • Family planning services
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (formerly known as food stamps)
  • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
  • National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs
  • Legal services
  • Jobs Corps

Some state and local governments provide programs for the poor, as do some private companies and charities.

How U.S. Poverty Levels Compare to Countries Around the World

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States has the highest poverty rate among the world’s 26 most developed countries. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) ranks the United States second behind Mexico on a scale of what economists call “relative child poverty” when measured against 35 of the world’s richest nations.

These rankings are not absolute measures. Relative child poverty refers to a child living in a household where the income is less than half of the national median; the relative standards in the United States are high.

About The Author

Bill Fay

Bill “No Pay” Fay has lived a meager financial existence his entire life. He started writing/bragging about it in 2012, helping birth into existence as the site’s original “Frugal Man.” Prior to that, he spent more than 30 years covering the high finance world of college and professional sports for major publications, including the Associated Press, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. His interest in sports has waned some, but he is as passionate as ever about not reaching for his wallet. Bill can be reached at [email protected].


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