What is the Supplemental Poverty Measure and How Does It Differ From the Official Measure?

Written by: Trudi Renwick and Liana Fox, Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division

Since the publication of the first official U.S. poverty statistics in 1964, there has been a continuing debate about the best way to measure income and poverty in the United States.

In 2010, an interagency technical working group asked the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to develop a new measure that would improve our understanding of the economic well-being of American families and enhance our ability to measure the effect of federal policies on those living in poverty. The technical design of the supplemental poverty measure draws on the recommendations of a 1995 National Academy of Sciences report and the extensive research on poverty measurement conducted over the past 20 years. See the history of poverty measures in the United States here.

On September 13, 2016, the Census Bureau will release the sixth report on the supplemental poverty measure, containing estimates for the 2015 calendar year. The report presents estimates for the official and supplemental poverty measures and discusses differences between the two measures. The major differences are listed in the table below and in this infographic.


The official poverty measure compares an individual’s or family’s pretax cash income to a set of thresholds that vary by the size of the family and the ages of the family members. These official poverty calculations do not take into account the value of in-kind benefits, such as those provided by nutrition assistance or housing and energy programs. Nor do they take into account regional differences in living costs or expenses, such as housing.

However, the supplemental poverty measure takes into account family resources and expenses not included in the official measure as well as geographic variation. First, it adds the value of in-kind benefits that are available to buy basic goods to cash income. In-kind benefits include nutritional assistance, subsidized housing and home energy assistance. Then it subtracts necessary expenses for critical goods and services not included in the thresholds from resources. Necessary expenses that must be subtracted include income taxes, Social Security payroll taxes, childcare and other work-related expenses, child support payments to another household, and contributions toward the cost of medical care and health insurance premiums.

Thresholds used in the supplemental poverty measure are produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics using Consumer Expenditure Survey data that show how much people spend on basic necessities (food, clothing, shelter and utilities) and are adjusted for geographic differences in the cost of housing. The supplemental poverty measure thresholds are not intended to assess eligibility for government assistance.

Next week’s report will compare 2015 supplemental poverty estimates with 2015 official poverty estimates for numerous demographic groups. It will also provide state-level supplemental poverty statistics using three years of Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement data and compare 2014 supplemental poverty estimates with 2015 estimates. In addition, the report will examine the effect on supplemental poverty rates of excluding specific resource or expenditure elements, such as noncash benefits, tax credits and medical expenses.

For more details on the supplemental measure, please see the technical appendixes of the September 2015 report or the technical webinar presented in November 2011.


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How the Census Bureau Measures Income and Poverty

Written by: Trudi Renwick, Assistant Division Chief, Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division

Income, poverty and health insurance statistics for 2015 from the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (CPS ASEC) will be released Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. One-year statistics from the 2015 American Community Survey (ACS) will be released on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016.

In all likelihood, the national statistics from these two sources will not be identical. Why not, which is correct? Well, it is complicated.

There are several reasons why the statistics from the two surveys differ. One of the most notable ways is that the CPS asks respondents about income in the previous calendar year while the ACS asks respondents about income in a rolling 12-month period throughout the year.

The CPS is conducted every month and serves as the nation’s primary source of statistics on labor force characteristics. Supplements are added in most months; the CPS ASEC provides the official annual statistics on the nation’s poverty levels as well as statistics on income, age, sex, race, marital status, educational attainment, employee benefits, work schedules, school enrollment, health insurance, noncash benefits and migration.

The CPS is the longest-running survey conducted by the Census Bureau. The CPS ASEC asks detailed questions categorizing income into over 50 sources. The key purpose of the CPS ASEC is to provide timely and detailed estimates of income and poverty and to measure change in these national-level estimates. The CPS ASEC is the official source of the national poverty estimates calculated in accordance with the Office of Management and Budget’s Statistical Policy Directive 14. For more information on the CPS ASEC, visit <www.census.gov/programs-surveys/cps.html>.

The ACS, on the other hand, is the only source of small-area statistics available on a wide range of important social and economic characteristics for all communities in the country. In addition to income, poverty and health insurance, other topics include education, language ability, the foreign-born population, marital status, migration, homeownership, the cost and value of homes, and many more.

The ACS has an annual sample size of about 3.54 million addresses across the United States and Puerto Rico and includes both housing units and group quarters (e.g., nursing homes and prisons). The ACS is conducted in every county throughout the nation, and every municipio in Puerto Rico, where it is called the Puerto Rico Community Survey. Beginning in 2006 (2005 data year), ACS data were released annually for geographic areas with populations of 65,000 and greater. For information on the ACS sample design and other topics, visit <www.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs>.

Statistics from these two surveys may differ for multiple reasons. First, income questions on the CPS ASEC are much more detailed than the summary questions asked on the ACS. For the CPS ASEC, interviewers administer the survey to respondents while people primarily respond to ACS questions over the Internet or by mail. (Interviewers follow up with households who do not respond to the ACS online or by mail.)

Second, the reference periods for the two surveys are very different. The CPS ASEC asks respondents to report on their income in the previous calendar year. The ACS asks about income in the prior 12 months. Since the ACS is a continuous survey administered throughout the year, some respondents to the 2015 ACS (those who fill out the survey in January 2015) are reporting income received between January 2014 and December 2014, while other respondents (those who fill out the survey in December 2015) are reporting income received between December 2014 and November 2015.

These differences often result in different national statistics for such key indicators as poverty, median income and income inequality. Despite differences in the “levels” of these indicators, the trends over time tend to be very similar across the two surveys. The following graphs show median household income and poverty rates from the ACS compared with statistics from the CPS ASEC for previous years. The red line adjusts the CPS ASEC for the differences in reference periods.


Many people contact us each year asking which estimate to use for a particular purpose. For national statistics, we recommend the CPS ASEC because it provides a historical time series at the national level and in some cases, back more than half a century. Because of the larger sample size and smaller sampling errors, we recommend using the ACS for subnational geographies.

If you are interested in a longer time series than is available from the ACS, generally we have recommended using two- or three-year averages from the CPS ASEC.

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Health Insurance Coverage Measurement in Two Surveys

By Marina Vornovitsky, Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division

Next week, the U.S. Census Bureau is releasing two important sources for health insurance statistics in the United States: the Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey.

Many people ask us which estimate they should use. Well, it depends. The benefit of the Current Population Survey is the combination of detailed employment and detailed income information, along with the health insurance coverage statistics, which provides an excellent overall picture of the well-being of our nation. With the new Current Population Survey baseline in 2013, annual comparisons are rich with detail. For detailed analysis of subnational geographies, we recommend using the American Community Survey statistics because of its larger sample size and smaller sampling errors. Also, the American Community Survey can provide historic comparisons back to 2008.

Both surveys have questions that attempt to measure the same phenomena. They obtain a person’s health insurance status by asking if they have insurance through a number of different sources, such as an employer, directly through an insurance company, Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans Administration and other public sector insurance, and the military. So, how are the two surveys different? They differ in the timing of data collection, the reference period, the time frame of the resulting health insurance coverage estimates, and, ultimately, in uses of the data.

The Current Population Survey has produced health insurance statistics since 1987, making it one of the most widely used sources of statistics on health insurance coverage in the United States. The survey provides information on health insurance status (insured or not insured) for the nation and by demographic groups. The Current Population Survey is sponsored jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to provide monthly labor force statistics for the population of the United States. Detailed employment and income data available from this survey make it possible to view changes in health insurance coverage in relation to changes in the overall economic well-being of the nation.

Two years ago, after more than a decade of research, we implemented redesigned health insurance coverage questions in the Current Population Survey to improve the accuracy of our measure of health insurance coverage. With this strong baseline beginning with calendar year 2013, we can measure the impact of the major provisions of the Affordable Care Act that went into effect in 2014, as well as any future changes in health insurance coverage.

Starting in 2008, the Census Bureau also began asking about health insurance coverage using the American Community Survey. With its much larger sample size, we can see health insurance statistics for subnational geographies, such as states, counties, metro areas, congressional districts and cities. This level of geographical detail is not available from any other survey that collects data on health insurance coverage.

The concept of “uninsured” is also slightly different between the two surveys. In the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement, which is conducted in February through April, respondents answer questions about whether they had health insurance coverage at any time in the previous calendar year. The survey, thus, measures if a person was insured on any day during the previous year. Individuals are considered “uninsured” only if, for the entire year, they had no coverage under any type of health insurance.

In contrast, the American Community Survey is a rolling sample of households collected continuously all year long. We ask if a person is currently covered by any of the listed types of health insurance. So, the American Community Survey measures health insurance for the population based on whether people are insured at the point-in-time that they answered the survey during the year of collection.

There is also a variety of differences in the survey logistics. Census Bureau field representatives conduct the Current Population Survey by personal visit or telephone. For the American Community Survey, many respondents receive a paper form to complete and return in the mail or they can reply via the internet. Because of space limits within a paper survey, the American Community Survey asks fewer and less detailed questions than the Current Population Survey. In addition, the American Community Survey asks about the insurance coverage of each household member specifically, while the Current Population Survey asks if anyone in the household is covered, and if so, who that is.

With these variations and others, the two surveys produce consistent, though slightly different statistics on health insurance coverage.

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National Parks and the Economy of Their “Gateway Towns”

Written by Robert Bernstein, Economy-Wide Statistics Division

Nowhere is our nation’s natural beauty on more vivid display than in its more than 400 national parks. Maintained by the National Park Service for exactly one century this summer, these venues have long been popular destinations for summer vacations and weekend getaways.

The term “National Park” immediately conjures up images of some of their most famous landmarks, such as “Old Faithful” in Yellowstone, “Half Dome” in Yosemite and the waves crashing into the rocky shores of Acadia, but national parks also include places where American history was written and that preserve the unique culture of our nation. For many visitors, their first stops are the “gateway communities” that serve national parks. Located not far from the parks’ entrances, these towns are critical to tourists for lodging, food and “gassing up.”

Tourism related industries including hotels (except casino hotels) and motels; full-service (sit-down) restaurants; limited-service (fast food) restaurants; gasoline stations; amusement, gambling, and recreation; gift, novelty, and souvenir stores; and RV parks and campgrounds accounted for more than 10 percent of all U.S. establishments and employed 12.4 million people in 2012. In honor of the National Park Service’s centennial, we’re taking a closer look at three gateway communities surrounding the national parks, including which industries are most prevalent, by examining data from the Census Bureau’s 2012 Economic Census.

National Parks Graph

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

Pigeon Forge, Tenn., located a few miles from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (the nation’s most visited park, according to the National Park Service), provides an example of the importance of these industries to these towns. Sales there totaled:

  • $135.2 million for hotels and motels (NAICS 721110).
  • $27.2 million for gasoline stations (NAICS 4471).
  • $90.5 million for full-service (sit-down) restaurants (NAICS 722511) and $26.4 million for limited-service (fast food) restaurants (NAICS 722513).

Sales for these four industries combined topped $279.0 million. Three of these industries are in the accommodations and food services sector and account for 84.9 percent ($252.1 million) of the sector’s total revenues of $296.9 million. The only other sectors in town with revenues anywhere close are retail trade (which includes gasoline stations) at $241.1 million, and arts, entertainment and recreation, at $230.7 million. The latter sector includes another tourism-related subsector: amusement, gambling, and recreation (NAICS 713). If you throw in its revenues of $154.1 million; $27.0 million from gift, novelty and souvenir stores (NAICS 453220); and $5.7 million generated by RV parks and campgrounds (NAICS 721211), tourism-related sales and revenues exceeded $466.0 million in Pigeon Forge.

The town of 5,984 people (according to 2012 population estimates) contained 84 hotels and motels and 41 full-service restaurants, or one hotel and motel for every 71 residents and one full-service restaurant for every 146 people. These seven tourist-related industries combined account for 44.7 percent of the town’s business establishments and employ 5,999 people (higher than the population, including children).

Estes Park, Colorado

Moving west, Estes Park, Colo., is just outside Rocky Mountain National Park, the fifth most visited park according to the National Park Service. Sales there totaled:

  • $45.1 million for hotels and motels,
  • $21.7 million for full-service (sit-down)  restaurants and $8.3 million for limited-service (fast food) restaurants, and
  • $11.1 million for gasoline stations

Combined, these four industries totaled $86.2 million in sales/revenues. Three of these industries are in the accommodations and food service sector and account for 81.5 percent ($75.1 million) of the sector’s total of $92.2 million. Only the retail trade sector, which includes gasoline stations, had higher sales/revenues among sectors.

This town of 6,027 people (according to 2012 population estimates) was home to 39 hotels and motels and 38 full-service restaurants, or roughly one each for every 150 residents. The four industries — hotels and motels, sit-down restaurants, fast-food restaurants and gas stations — employed 1,059 people. If you add gift, novelty, and souvenir stores, they accounted for over one-quarter (127 or 30.2 percent) of the town’s business establishments.

Jackson, Wyoming

Our final stop takes us to Jackson, Wyo., five miles from the Grand Teton National Park, the nation’s eighth most visited park according to the National Park Service, where sales for hotels and motels, full-service restaurants, gasoline stations and limited-service restaurants totaled:

  • $82.0 million for hotels and motels,
  • $55.0 million for full-service (sit down) restaurants and $18.0 million for limited-service (fast food) restaurants, and
  • $51.5 million for gasoline stations

These industries totaled more than $206.0 million combined. This exceeded revenues for each of the following sectors: health care and social assistance ($154.1 million); professional, scientific and technical services ($104.7 million); real estate and rental and leasing ($73.4 million); wholesale trade ($43.1 million); and manufacturing ($20.8 million).

As you observe the natural beauty of our country’s parks this summer, consider the economic census statistics that give us insight into the communities surrounding them.

Happy 100th birthday, National Park Service!

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The Increasing Complexity of IT Occupations

By Julia Beckhusen

Computers are all around us — from desktops at work and home to smartphones everywhere in between. In fact, about 4 in 5 households own some type of computer. America’s use of technology relies on a large workforce to maintain networks, develop hardware and software, and provide support. In 2014, 4.6 million people worked in information technology (IT).

A new report released today by the U.S. Census Bureau explores trends in IT occupations since 1970 as well as characteristics of the IT workforce. Moreover, it explains how the Census Bureau tracks growing and evolving occupations over time.

The number of IT workers increased tenfold between 1970, when the Census Bureau first recognized IT occupations, and today. When scientists and engineers developed computers, their work was classified into three categories: programming, analyzing and everything else. Other workers performed job activities, which today would be classified as IT occupations. As computers emerged from room-sized machines to personal workstations connected to the internet, the type of IT work diversified. Thus, the classifications for IT occupations needed more detail to categorize the work adequately, and the number of IT occupations expanded to account for the changes.

The figure below illustrates the growth and increasing complexity of IT occupations. Between 1970 and now, the Census Bureau increased the number of IT occupation classifications from three to 12. The largest expansion came during the technology boom in the 1990s when the number of IT workers more than doubled from 1.5 million to 3.4 million. Some of the occupations “born” from the expansion included computer support specialists, computer software engineers, and network systems and data communications analysts.


After the steep rise at the end of the 20th century, the demand for IT workers slowed down compared with the previous decade. However, the number of distinct occupations continued to grow. By 2010, the Census Bureau added four more IT occupations.

The report released today describes the growth and occupational diversity of the information technology workforce in the United States. In addition, the report provides a description of demographic and employment characteristics of IT workers in 2014 using statistics from the American Community Survey.


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