Measuring Poverty

Written by: David Johnson, Chief, Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division

Open any newspaper or turn on any news broadcast and chances are good you’ll find a story touching on poverty in America. Each year the U.S. Census Bureau offers America a snapshot of poverty in our country.

How many people live in poverty? In 2009, the number was 43.6 million (14.3 percent of our population).

The rate varies for different groups. For instance, it is 20.7 percent for children, but 8.9 percent for people 65 and older. It is 29.9 percent for families with a female householder and 5.8 percent for married-couple families. Additionally, it is 9.4 percent for non-Hispanic whites, 12.5 percent for Asians, 25.8 percent for blacks and 25.3 percent for Hispanics.

Number in Poverty and Poverty Rate

We publish poverty data dating back to 1959, which is shortly before the official poverty measure was developed. The number of people in poverty in 2009 – 43.6 million – is the largest number ever recorded in this 51-year period. Partly this is because our population is much larger. The poverty rate in 2009 was the highest since 1994, but is 8 percentage points lower than it was in 1959.

Policymakers and analysts rely heavily on these data as one of the primary measures of the health of our economy, as well as to gauge the effectiveness of government programs.
Each year, we ask people in roughly 78,000 households about their income in the Annual Social and Economic Supplement to our Current Population Survey. If you are one of them, remember that your answer is very important. This information helps our nation address the many problems of poverty and find solutions.

To access all of our poverty data, visit our Web site.

Download report: Income, Poverty and Health Insurance, 2009

Download Income and Poverty Fact Sheet

View Census: Income, Poverty and Health Insurance data presentation slides

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8 Responses to Measuring Poverty

  1. Melodae Jeffries says:

    How was the poverty level calculated?
    I worked for the Census and we didn’t ask any questions about income level.

  2. Sam@Census says:

    This report presents data on income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the United States based on information collected in the 2010 and earlier Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplements (CPS ASEC) conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.
    The data is not taken from that collected for the decennial population count in 2000 or 2010. The new 2010 data will be released starting in December 2010. See calendar of data releases:
    For a list of all US Census Bureau surveys, visit:

  3. Mark W. says:

    Are you able to narrow down the poverty levels of cities or towns to particular areas so that maybe the research can be used to determine why these areas struggle while others thrive? -Dr. Oz

  4. Sam@Census says:

    The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 5-year estimates, to be released in December, will provide a look at poverty levels by census tract, which correspond to neighborhoods. These estimates will cover the 2005-2009 period.
    Here’s some more information on ACS:

  5. Daemon Lync says:

    You can apply these methods to our places that have more people in poverty.
    Great post though.
    Good luck,
    Daemon Lync

  6. Erica says:

    How was the poverty level for 1959 calculated if it was before the official poverty measure was developed?

  7. Sam@Census says:

    @Erica: To calculate the poverty level, the thresholds as developed in the mid-1960’s were used and backtracked to 1959, based on the changes in the cost of living. These backtracked thresholds were applied to the 1959 file.

  8. VN Index says:

    good IDEA I think this formulla will work.
    VN Index

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