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Further Resources on Poverty Measurement, Poverty Lines, and Their History

Introduction

This page includes resources on the two slightly different versions of the U.S. (federal) poverty measure:  the poverty thresholds and the poverty guidelines.

  • The poverty thresholds are the original version of the federal poverty measure. They are updated each year by the Census Bureau. The thresholds are used mainly for statistical purposes — e.g., preparing estimates of the number of Americans in poverty each year.
  • The poverty guidelines are the other version of the federal poverty measure. They are issued each year in the Federal Register by the Department of Health and Human Services. The guidelines are a simplification of the poverty thresholds for use for administrative purposes — e.g., determining financial eligibility for certain federal programs.

Key differences between the poverty thresholds and the poverty guidelines are outlined on our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) page. See also the discussion of this topic on the Institute for Research on Poverty’s web site.

Background Paper on the Poverty Guidelines

Gordon M. Fisher, “Poverty Guidelines for 1992,” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 55, No. 1, Spring 1992, pp. 43-46 [PDF Format]

Besides presenting the guidelines for a particular year, this article is a background paper on the poverty guidelines. It describes the differences between the poverty guidelines and poverty thresholds, lists a number of federal programs that use the guidelines as an eligibility criterion, and shows how the guidelines are calculated from the thresholds each year.

Programs That Do — and Don’t — Use the Poverty Guidelines

The HHS poverty guidelines, or percentage multiples of them (such as 125 percent, 150 percent, or 185 percent), are used as an eligibility criterion by a number of federal programs, including those listed below. For examples of major means-tested programs that do not use the poverty guidelines, see the end of this response.

  • Corporation for National and Community Service:
    • Foster Grandparent Program
    • Senior Companion Program
  • Department of Agriculture:
    • Child and Adult Care Food Program (for free and reduced-price meals only)
    • Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program
    • National School Lunch Program (for free and reduced-price meals only)
    • School Breakfast Program (for free and reduced-price meals only)
    • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
    • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (formerly Food Stamp Program)
  • Department of Energy:
    • Weatherization Assistance for Low-Income Persons
  • Department of Health and Human Services:
    • AIDS Drug Assistance Program
    • Assets for Independence Demonstration Program
    • Children’s Health Insurance Program
    • Community Health Centers
    • Community Services Block Grant
    • Family Planning Services
    • Head Start
    • Health Careers Opportunity Program
    • Health Professions Student Loans — Loans for Disadvantaged Students
    • Hill-Burton Uncompensated Services Program
    • Job Opportunities for Low-Income Individuals
    • Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
    • Low Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP)
    • Medicare – Prescription Drug Coverage (subsidized portion only)
    • Migrant Health Centers
    • PARTS of Medicaid (31 percent of eligibles in Fiscal Year 2004)
    • Scholarships for Health Professions Students from Disadvantaged Backgrounds
  • Department of Labor:
    • Job Corps
    • National Farmworker Jobs Program
    • Senior Community Service Employment Program
    • Workforce Investment Act Youth Activities
  • Department of the Treasury:
    • Low-Income Taxpayer Clinics
  • Legal Services Corporation:
    • Legal Services for the Poor

Most of these programs are non-open-ended programs — that is, programs for which a fixed amount of money is appropriated each year. A few open-ended or “entitlement” programs that use the poverty guidelines for eligibility are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps), the National School Lunch Program, certain parts of Medicaid, and the subsidized portion of Medicare – Prescription Drug Coverage.

Some state and local governments have chosen to use the federal poverty guidelines in some of their own programs and activities. Examples include financial guidelines for child support enforcement and determination of legal indigence for court purposes. Some private companies (such as utilities, telephone companies, and pharmaceutical companies) and some charitable agencies also use the guidelines in setting eligibility for their services to low-income persons.

Major means-tested programs that do not use the poverty guidelines in determining eligibility include the following:

  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)
  • State/local-funded General Assistance (in most cases)
  • Some parts of Medicaid
  • Section 8 low-income housing assistance
  • Low-rent public housing

The Official Federal Statistical Definition of Poverty

Statistical Policy Directive No. 14, “Definition of Poverty for Statistical Purposes” ( Federal Register, Vol. 43, No. 87, May 4, 1978, p. 19269)

In August 1969, the U.S. Bureau of the Budget (the predecessor of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget) designated the Census Bureau’s poverty thresholds as the federal government’s official statistical definition of poverty. This directive is the latest version of the document embodying that designation.

Mollie Orshansky’s Development of the Poverty Thresholds

Gordon M. Fisher, “The Development and History of the Poverty Thresholds,” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 55, No. 4, Winter 1992, pp. 3-14 [PDF Format]

This article describes how Mollie Orshansky developed the poverty thresholds during the 1960’s, and how the thresholds have and have not been changed since then. For a 2-page summary of this article, see “The Development and History of the U.S. Poverty Thresholds — A Brief Overview,” GSS/SSS Newsletter [Newsletter of the Government Statistics Section and the Social Statistics Section of the American Statistical Association], Winter 1997, pp. 6-7. There is also an 88-page revision of the unpublished paper from which the Social Security Bulletin article was condensed.

Mollie Orshansky, “Counting the Poor:  Another Look at the Poverty Profile,” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 28, No. 1, January 1965, pp. 3-29 — reprinted in Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 51, No. 10, October 1988, pp. 25-51

This is the original article in which Orshansky presented the final version of her poverty thresholds. See selected articles and papers by Orshansky on the poverty thresholds and the poverty population, with a link to some of the articles (including “Counting the Poor …”). See also a chronological bibliography of Orshansky’s publications. The economy food plan used by Orshansky to develop the thresholds is included in a 1962 Agriculture Department report [PDF format - 58 pages].

Research on Alternative Approaches to Poverty Measurement

Recommendation of the Subcommittee on Updating the Poverty Threshold, August 2, 1973.

Memorandum from Milo B. Sunderhauf, Statistical Policy Division, Office of Management and Budget, to Robert Raynsford, Office of Management and Budget — Subject: Recommendations of the Subcommittee on Updating the Poverty Threshold. (Note that Mollie Orshansky was one of the members of this Subcommittee.)

Consolidated Report of Subcommittee Chairmen: Review of Poverty Statistics, September 4, 1973

Memorandum from Bette Mahoney, Chairman, Subcommittee on Measurement of Non-Cash Income, Milo B. Sunderhauf, Chairman, Subcommittee on Updating the Poverty Threshold, and Murray S. Weitzman, Chairman, Subcommittee on Measurement of Cash Income, THRU Robert W. Raynsford, Statistical Policy Division, Office of Management and Budget, to Paul F. Krueger — Subject: Consolidated Report of Subcommittee Chairmen: Review of Poverty Statistics.

In 1973, these subcommittees conducted a review of the federal statistics in these areas at the request of the Office of Management and Budget's Statistical Policy Division. This review was significant because many of the professionals who conducted it had been working with poverty and income concepts for years; they were familiar not only with these concepts themselves but also with the contexts in which they had been developed and (in a number of cases) with what had been done before the existing concepts were put in place. The recommendations of this review were not extensively publicized. In addition, they seem to have been eclipsed several years later by the Measure of Poverty report.

U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, The Measure of Poverty:  A Report to Congress as Mandated by The Education Amendments of 1974, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, April 1976

This report thoroughly explored the issues involved in developing and revising poverty measures, gathering extensive supporting information that was presented in the report itself and in 17 Technical Papers. The report did not recommend specific changes in the current poverty measure. The report and the technical papers are now available on the Census Bureau’s Web site.

Constance F. Citro and Robert T. Michael (editors), Measuring Poverty:  A New Approach, Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 1995

In May 1995, the Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance appointed by the National Research Council’s Committee on National Statistics issued this report, which proposed a new approach for developing an official poverty measure for the U.S. — although it did not propose a specific set of dollar figures. For further information on this report, contact the Committee on National Statistics, HA 192, National Research Council, 2101 Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20418 — telephone:  (202) 334-3093; e-mail address:  cnstat@nas.edu; or you may visit the web page for the report. The full text of the report is on the Census Bureau’s Poverty Measurement Web site.

Papers by David Betson on Poverty Measurement Issues

David M. Betson of the Notre Dame University Department of Economics wrote the following papers while he was a visiting scholar at the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, HHS.  (Dr. Betson was a member of the National Research Council's Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance.) 

U.S. Census Bureau, Poverty Measurement Working Papers

These working papers, written since 1995, deal with issues relating to poverty measurement and experimental poverty measures. Papers in this series are arranged under the following topics:  Measuring Poverty — Background and Overview; Who are the Poor? Using Different Measures; Poverty Thresholds; Medical Care; Housing Costs; Work-related Expenses and Child Care; Taxes and Unit of Analysis; and Other Approaches to Measuring Economic Well-being.

Kathleen Short, Thesia Garner, David Johnson, and Patricia Doyle, Experimental Poverty Measures:  1990 to 1997 , U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-205, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, June 1999. [PDF format - 133 pages]

This report is the first in a series of Census Bureau reports presenting variants of poverty measures based on the recommendations of the Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance. This report also examines the marginal effects of varying individual elements (e.g., the equivalence scale) of the proposed poverty measures. More recent Census Bureau reports on experimental poverty measures can also be found on the Census Bureau’s Poverty web site.

National Research Council, Experimental Poverty Measures:  Summary of a Workshop , Planning Group for the Workshop to Assess the Current Status of Actions Taken in Response to Measuring Poverty:  A New Approach, Committee on National Statistics, Washington, D.C., The National Academies Press, 2005

In June 2004, the National Research Council’s Committee on National Statistics convened a workshop to assess the current state of research on various elements of experimental poverty measures based on the recommendations of the 1995 Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance. This report summarizes the discussions at the workshop. Eight papers presented at the workshop are available on the Committee on National Statistics web site. See also John Iceland, “The CNSTAT workshop on experimental poverty measures, June 2004” in Focus, Vol. 23, No. 3, Spring 2005, pp. 26-30, for a 5-page summary of the workshop. [PDF format - 5 pages]

Douglas J. Besharov and Peter Germanis, Reconsidering the Federal Poverty Measure , University of Maryland Welfare Reform Academy, June 14, 2004.  [PDF format - 24 pages]

Beginning in 2004, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (ASPE) provided funding for a series of seminars to explore the limitations of the current federal poverty measure and to identify alternative approaches for measuring the material well-being of low-income Americans. Seminar participants included most of the senior government officials responsible for the relevant surveys, as well as academics broadly representative of different disciplines and political orientations. This paper provides a description of the seminar project. Working papers and summaries of individual seminars are available .

Papers by ASPE Staff Relating to the History of Poverty Lines

Gordon M. Fisher, “From Hunter to Orshansky:  An Overview of (Unofficial) Poverty Lines in the United States from 1904 to 1965” (October 1993 — revised August 1997)

A 7-page summary of this 98-page paper is also available.

Gordon M. Fisher, “Is There Such a Thing as an Absolute Poverty Line Over Time? Evidence from the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia on the Income Elasticity of the Poverty Line” (October 1994 — revised August 1995)

Successive unofficial poverty lines developed as absolute poverty lines show a pattern of rising in real terms over time as the real income of the general population rises; this phenomenon has been termed “the income elasticity of the poverty line.” This 78-page paper assembles extensive historical evidence of this phenomenon not only from the U.S. but also from the three other countries named. For a brief summary of the U.S. evidence alone, see “Relative or Absolute — New Light on the Behavior of Poverty Lines Over Time,” GSS/SSS Newsletter [Joint Newsletter of the Government Statistics Section and the Social Statistics Section of the American Statistical Association], Summer 1996, pp. 10-12.

Gordon M. Fisher, "Standard Budgets (Basic Needs Budgets) in the United States Since 2006", August 2012

Gordon M. Fisher, “An Overview of Recent Work on Standard Budgets in the United States and Other Anglophone Countries”, January 2007.

Gordon M. Fisher, “'Enough for a Family to Live On?' — Questions from Members of the American Public and New Perspectives from British Social Scientists” (a paper presented at the 23rd Annual Research Conference of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management in Washington, D.C.), November 2001.  [PDF format - 50 pages]

This paper reviews four approaches to determining a socially acceptable minimum standard of living (poverty) that are being used in Britain and other European countries.

Gordon M. Fisher, “Reasons for Measuring Poverty in the United States in the Context of Public Policy — A Historical Review, 1916-1995” (August 1999 — revised June 2000)

Gordon M. Fisher, “How Many Americans Were Really in Poverty in 1947? Estimates of the U.S. Poverty Population Between 1947 and 1963 Under Two Contemporary (1949 and 1959) Definitions of Poverty” (a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Economic History Association in Baltimore, Maryland), October 1999

As indicated by the title, this paper applies unofficial 1949 and 1959 definitions of poverty to income data for the 1947-1963 period, yielding poverty population estimates for those years. These estimates were included in the subchapter on poverty published in Historical Statistics of the United States (Millennial Edition) (2006). The paper also withdraws an unpublished 1985 set of poverty population estimates by the author which applied a 1960s definition of poverty--the current official definition--to income data for 1947-1959. The paper argues that it was inappropriate to apply a 1960s definition of poverty to income data for the 1940s and 1950s.

Gordon M. Fisher, “Setting American Standards of Poverty:  A Look Back,” Focus [newsletter of the Institute for Research on Poverty], Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring 1998, pp. 47-52. [This issue of Focus is available in Adobe Acrobat format (PDF) on the Institute for Research on Poverty’s Web site, 64 pages.]

This article summarizes the development and history of the current official poverty measure and also the history of unofficial poverty lines in the U.S. before 1965.

Gordon M. Fisher, "Disseminating the Administrative Version and Explaining the Administrative and Statistical Versions of the Federal Poverty Measure” Clinical Sociological Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1997.

Gordon M. Fisher, “Poverty Lines and Measures of Income Inadequacy in the United States Since 1870: Collecting and Using a Little-Known Body of Historical Material” (a paper presented at the 22nd Meeting of the Social Science History Association in Washington, D.C.), October 1997

Gordon M. Fisher, “Some Popular Beliefs About the U.S. Poverty Line as Reflected in Inquiries from the Public,” The Sociologist [Newsletter of the District of Columbia Sociological Society], Vol. 30, No. 2, October 1996, p. 6

For Further Questions

If you have further questions about poverty guidelines, poverty thresholds, or poverty lines that are not answered by the material on this page or by our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), you may contact:

Kendall Swenson
Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation
Room 422F.5, Humphrey Building
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Avenue, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20201
Phone:  (202) 795-7309
E-mail:  Kendall.Swenson@hhs.gov