Special Report

Poverty in America

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Poverty in High-Income Countries

Even after years of improvement, poverty is more prevalent in the U.S. than most industrialized nations. In this chart, poverty is measured as the percentage of people earning incomes at or below 50% the median income.

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How Poverty is Measured: 3 Measures of Income Needed for Life’s Essentials

The poverty level is intended to be the income above which a family or an individual is able to afford life’s essentials. Rather than a poverty threshold, the EPI’s family budget calculator estimates the income needed for a “modest yet adequate” living standard.

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How Poverty is Measured: Poverty and Population, 1960-2017

The poverty rate has fallen only modestly since its steep drop in the 1950s and 1960s — the period in which President Johnson enacted a set of social programs as part of his “War on Poverty.” For reference, the gray line represents the change in the U.S. population.

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How Poverty is Measured: Poverty Rate and All People in Poverty, 1960-2017

The official poverty rate has remained between 11% and 15% since 1980. However, due to population growth, the number of people in poverty has risen over time. Nearly 40 million Americans currently live below the poverty line.

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How Poverty is Measured: Share of Household Expenditure, 1961 and 2016

Though housing prices rose rapidly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the official poverty threshold has changed little as housing prices are not considered in the calculation. Had the measure taken housing prices and other expenses into account, the poverty threshold might have been higher — and with it the poverty rate.

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How Poverty is Measured: Share of Disposable Income Spent on Food, 1930-2014

Food used to comprise a much larger share of a family’s budget compared to today. According to a 1955 government survey, a typical low-income family spent about one-third of its budget on food. The average household of that time spent between 15% and 20% on food. More current surveys find that today a typical family spends between 9.7% and 12.6% on food.

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